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Solar panels and California’s water canals: A match made in heaven

About 4,000 miles of canals transport water to some 35 million people and 5.7 million acres of farmland across California. As the state enters another year of severe drought, researchers from the University of California have come up with a proposition to cover these canals with solar panels to prevent evaporation and generate clean energy. 

Most of California’s precipitation falls in the northern end of the state while 80 percent of water use occurs in Southern California. This demand discrepancy is the reason for so many canals, yet experts estimate that one to two percent of all water transported through these canals is lost to evaporation. Researchers have calculated that covering these canals with solar panels would save more than 65 billion gallons of water annually. That’s enough to irrigate 50,000 acres of farmland or meet the residential water needs of over two million people.

These water-saving panels would also generate 13 gigawatts of renewable energy. Plus, the cool water flowing beneath the panels would cool the technology during hot weather, boosting electricity production during the summer by up to three percent. The ubiquity of these canals throughout the state would essentially create solar microgrids to serve surrounding communities, offering energy resilience during wildfires and heatwaves. 

Lastly, using existing infrastructure to build solar arrays prevents farmable land from being used for energy generation. Turning canals into hosts for panels would save 80,000 acres of farmland and natural habitat from being converted for solar farms. This protects not only the future of food but also the delicate ecosystems that makeup California’s remaining undeveloped land. 

This solution is the best of many worlds in terms of energy generation, water conservation, and intelligent land use. We will continue to follow this research and hopefully see California begin to implement this solar strategy in the near future.

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