Inside Clean Energy: In Parched California, a Project Aims to Save Water and Produce Renewable Energy

Plan calls for building solar canopies over canals, and may be the first project of its kind in the United States.

A conceptual rendering of solar canopies covering part of Turlock Irrigation District's 110-foot-wide main canal, near Turlock, California. Credit: Turlock Irrigation District

A conceptual rendering of solar canopies covering part of Turlock Irrigation District's 110-foot-wide main canal, near Turlock, California. Credit: Turlock Irrigation District

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A project near Modesto, California, would have the double benefit of saving water and generating renewable energy.

The Turlock Irrigation District announced this month that it is building solar electricity-generating canopies over portions of the district’s canal system, working in partnership with a Bay Area start-up, Solar AquaGrid.

A series of canopies would cover more than a mile of canals, going online by 2024 with solar panels that would have a capacity of about 5 megawatts. By shading the sun, the structures would reduce evaporation, leaving more water for the district’s customers. And the cost, estimated at $20 million, is being picked up by the state government.

This is the first demonstration project by Solar AquaGrid, a company that sees the potential to install similar canopies over thousands of miles of canals in California and elsewhere.

Jordan Harris, the company’s CEO, told me that the idea for Solar AquaGrid came from him noticing how California canals were often in direct sunlight, while canals in France are often shaded by canopies of trees.

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Before I go on, some more about Harris: He is not well-known in the energy industry, but he made a mark for decades in the recording industry. He was a top executive at several record companies, and co-founded Virgin Records America in 1986. The label’s artists included Paula Abdul, Janet Jackson and Lenny Kravitz. He also co-founded Rock the Vote in 1990, a campaign to get young people to participate in the political process.

He was an environmental advocate during his time in the record industry, and now focuses most of his time on ventures related to the environment and clean energy. In 2005, he co-founded OZOcar, a chauffeured car service that uses eco-friendly vehicles. He co-founded Solar AquaGrid in 2015.

“Given the conditions we’re experiencing on this planet, it seems like we need some bold moves,” Harris said.

Demonstrating solar canopies

I’ve written before about the push to build floating solar arrays that can produce electricity while reducing evaporation from reservoirs. Solar canopies are different, with panels that are suspended above the water instead of floating, which allows for the water to flow underneath. And, solar canopies are much less common than floating solar arrays.

Some of the only examples of solar canopies are in India, where developers have completed projects in Gujarat and Punjab.

Solar AquaGrid looked closely at the Gujarat project and spoke with the people who built it, Harris said. He and his colleagues saw how the project’s steel-truss design was heavy and limited access to the canals. Based on this, the Turlock project uses a design with suspension cables, which are lighter than trusses and allow for easy access to the canals. 

To help show the potential for solar canopies, Solar AquaGrid sponsored research by the University of California, Merced. This led to a peer-reviewed paper published last year in the journal Nature Sustainability showing that the financial savings of reducing evaporation from canals would be enough to cover the costs of the canopies, and that there are additional benefits from generating renewable energy.

The water savings would be, in percentage terms, in the low single digits of the total water flowing in California’s irrigation systems, but it would be enough to be significant in a state where the demand for water far exceeds the supply, said Roger Bales, an engineering professor at UC Merced and a co-author of the paper.

“Where we build solar, and how we do it, matters,” he said. “Just as I put solar on my roof instead of in my backyard, I prefer to put it on top of other infrastructure like parking lots and canals, as opposed to taking farmland out of production or using natural lands that have biodiversity and ecosystem value.”

Turlock Irrigation District is a community-owned nonprofit that provides electricity and water to a mostly rural region that includes the city of Turlock and parts of Modesto. The district’s farmers depend on irrigation services to be able to grow their crops.

Once this solar canopy project is built, Solar AquaGrid and academic researchers will get a better idea of the costs and the benefits and figure out how best to communicate about them.

“Let’s start to develop new math and a new model for how we value these systems,” said Robin Raj, the other co-founder of Solar AquaGrid and the founder of The Citizen Group, a marketing and branding firm.

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He was attracted to the idea of solar canopies because of the dual benefits of saving water and producing renewable energy, he said.

The project wades into the larger idea of the water-energy nexus, which refers to the many ways that the water and energy systems are mutually dependent. Thermal power plants—including coal, natural gas and nuclear—need large quantities of water to operate, while systems that process and deliver water need large quantities of electricity to run.

I will be following this project, and will be looking for others out there that marry water conservation with energy conservation.


Other stories about the energy transition to take note of this week:

Contractors and Experts Weigh In on the Hurdles to Electrifying a Home: With a growing push to stop using natural gas and make homes all-electric, contractors and customers have some practical concerns about costs, how to deal with a boost in power demand and obtaining appliances that may not be easily available. One major issue is that many homes’ electrical panels are not configured to handle the higher amperage that’s often needed for them to run solely on electricity, requiring additional spending by the owners of those houses to upgrade their electrical systems. Meanwhile, contractors that offer to replace gas furnaces can often get it done more quickly and for a lower up-front cost, as Jeff St. John reports for Canara Media. But the hassles of going all-electric are often worth it; over time, an all-electric house will have lower costs and better air quality.

Offshore Wind Is On Track to Hit Biden’s 30 Gigawatt Target by 2030: Two reports issued this month show that the U.S. offshore wind industry is poised for rapid growth. S&P Global Market Intelligence reports that developers have announced 30.7 gigawatts of offshore wind projects. The Business Network of Offshore Wind, a trade group, reports that 17.5 gigawatts of projects have already obtained financing, while New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts have laws that would lead to development of more than 45 gigawatts by 2040. The progress shown in the reports shows that the Biden administration’s goal of building 30 gigawatts by 2030 is within reach, as Emma Penrod reports for Utility Dive.

EV Maker Polestar Wants to Produce a Truly Climate Neutral Car: Polestar, the Sweden-based electric vehicle manufacturer, has announced agreements with parts suppliers that are part of an attempt to use only components that are made in processes with zero-carbon emissions or emissions that can be offset in some way. The company says its goal is to make a vehicle that is truly climate neutral, as Rafaela Lindeberg reports for Bloomberg Green. “We are leveraging innovation and collaboration to address the climate crisis,” said Thomas Ingenlath, Polestar’s CEO, in a statement.

A High-Tech Twist on an Old Process Could Clean Up Steel and Cement Making: A start-up is developing a “heat battery” that industrial businesses may be able to use to provide the high heat used to make steel and cement. California-based Rondo Energy is developing a system that uses renewable energy to heat up bricks similar to the bricks used in blast furnaces. “Because it’s simple and boring, [the technology] can go to a very large scale with economics driving it and attack a big problem,” said John O’Donnell, the company’s CEO, in an interview Justine Calma of The Verge. If the technology works, it would provide companies with an option to replace processes that now are done by burning coal and other fossil fuels.

ICN reporter Julie Margolin contributed to this story.

Inside Clean Energy is ICN’s weekly bulletin of news and analysis about the energy transition. Send news tips and questions to dan.gearino@insideclimatenews.org.