It is no secret that California is facing a climate crisis. While the entire globe will have to wrestle with decisions regarding pollution, water conservation, energy usage, and other factors impacting climate change, California seems to be hit particularly hard with a current “megadrought” considered to be one of the worst in the western region of the U.S. The state’s more than 38 million residents certainly don’t help the situation. California is in extreme drought with consequences ranging from loss of vegetation and wildlife habitats to more intense and lengthy wildfire seasons. Many of the residents of the state are starting to feel the effects of climate change and are calling for action to be taken.
Thankfully, California is working on several changes and projects to help mitigate climate change effects and create less impact on the environment moving forward. One of those projects is the solar-canal solution, which is about to be tested on some of California’s canals. With around 4,000 miles of canals stretching across the state, the project will capitalize on more than just solar panel energy -- it will also help with water conservation and improve air quality, ultimately protecting the climate.
Central Valley Testing Out the Solar-Canal Solution
So how does the solar-canal project work? Put in simple terms, the canals are covered with solar panels, which helps reduce evaporation of valuable water sources and also creates renewable energy, all while saving money. According to a study done, placing solar panels along all 4,000 miles of canals would save an estimated 65 billion gallons of water each year, making a dramatic impact on California’s water needs.
Currently, the first prototypes in the country are being developed in California’s Central Valley by researching at the University of California, Merced. The researchers are working towards creating a practical application of the solar-canal method on a large scale.
The method also means that solar panel farms don’t have to be set up on currently undeveloped land or farmland, making it a sustainable method for both water and land resources in California.
Generating Electricity While Conserving Water
Of course, conserving water resources is important, but the solar panels also could help generate a serious amount of renewable energy, with estimates around 13 gigawatts. This would cover around half of the goal that California needs to reach its clean electricity goals by 2030 (60% carbon-free sources) and 2045 (100% renewable sources). Adding these custom thin solar arrays on top of the canals improves efficiency for both California’s renewable energy system and water conservation system -- and they both work to complement each other. For example, the solar panels prevent water from evaporating as much, especially during the extreme heatwaves in the summer.
At the same time, the water in the canal will keep the panels cooler, allowing them to boost production by around 3%. Ideally, the electricity from the panels could also be used locally to reduce transmissions losses as well as electricity costs for residents. Combined with other methods such as solar battery storage, the whole project can help cut down on the risk of emergency power shut offs often caused by wildfires, high winds, and other issues.
Cutting Back on Harmful Weeds & Chemical Treatments
The first developers of the solar panels in canals in India have found other benefits since beginning their project in 2014. Canals can often be choked by aquatic weeds, however, the addition of solar panels has greatly reduced them. Lack of sunlight caused diminished weed growth, which, when left unchecked, can greatly restrict water flow and decrease efficiency. Getting rid of the weeds with other methods can be costly, as well as harmful, as herbicides are often utilized which can cause further damage to the environment.
When calculating overall savings from reduced water evaporation, solar production, and less weed growth, larger, 100-foot-wide canals can produce an estimated $40,000 in savings per mile. That could lead to as much as $69 million statewide savings per year. This is a very exciting solar panel canal project for California and one that gives hope to the battle against climate change across the state.