Turlock Irrigation District will break ground this fall on a pilot project that’s a first for the nation, building solar panels over a portion of its existing canals as part of a multifaceted partnership meant to create a more water resilient future. 

In collaboration with the Department of Water Resources, Solar AquaGrid and the University of California, Merced, TID will take part in Project Nexus — the first-ever solar panel over canal development in the United States. The project will assess reduction of water evaporation resulting from midday shade and wind mitigation; improvements to water quality through reduced vegetative growth; reduction in canal maintenance through reduced vegetative growth; and generation of renewable electricity.

“In our 135-year history, we’ve always pursued innovative projects that benefit TID water and power customers,” TID Board President Michael Frantz said. “There will always be reasons to say ‘no’ to projects like this, but as the first public irrigation district in California, we aren’t afraid to chart a new path with pilot projects that have potential to meet our water and energy sustainability goals.”

The inspiration for the project came from a UC Merced study published last March, which illustrated that covering all of the approximately 4,000 miles of California canals could show a savings of 63 billion gallons of water annually, comparable to the amount needed to irrigate 50,000 acres of farmland or meet the residential water needs of more than 2 million people. According to the study, the 13 gigawatts of solar power the solar panels would generate each year would equal about one sixth of the state’s current installed capacity.

“The Solar AquaGrid model provides a combined, integrated response to addressing our water-energy nexus,” UC Merced Professor Roger Bales said. “It helps address California’s underlying vulnerabilities while meeting both state and federal level commitments to produce renewable energy, preserve natural lands, lower greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate climate change.”

The $20 million project is funded by the State of California and groundbreaking will take place this fall, with the project’s completion expected in 2024 at multiple locations throughout the TID service territory. The project will utilize already-existing infrastructure, and energy storage will be installed to study how storage facilities can support the local electric grid when solar generation is suboptimal due to cloud cover. 

DWR will oversee administration of the project, will provide technical assistance, as well as serve as a research partner.

“We are excited to explore new efforts to advance the integration of renewable energy into our water supply delivery system,” Karla Nemeth, Director of DWR, said. “The project offers great potential, and we look forward to collaborating with our local and academic partners to advance these types of multi-benefit projects.”

There are a total of three project sites planned along various sections of TID’s canal system, and in total, 8,500 feet of solar panels will be installed. The three sections are areas of various orientations and canal widths, ranging from 20 feet wide to 100 feet wide.

TID has retained Bay Area development firm Solar AquaGrid as project developers and program managers for TID and Project Nexus. The two agencies have been collaborating since the project’s inception. Solar AquaGrid originated the project after commissioning the UC Merced study in 2015 and has facilitated collaboration among the various parties to bring Project Nexus to fruition.

“Research and common sense tell us that in an age of intensifying drought, it’s time to put a lid on evaporation,” said Jordan Harris, CEO of Solar AquaGrid. “We are excited to partner with Turlock Irrigation District, DWR and UC Merced to develop this first-in-the-nation pilot project and bring needed innovation to the Central Valley. Our initial study revealed mounting solar panels over open canals can result in significant water, energy, and cost savings when compared to ground-mounted solar systems, including added efficiency resulting from an exponential shading/cooling effect. Now is the chance to put that learning to the test.”

For additional information about the project and project partners, visit www.tid.org/projectnexus.