Key takeaways


he expansive, sun-baked landscapes of the Western United States are no strangers to innovation, especially when it comes to tackling the region's severe water shortages and blazing sunlight. Now, they’re rolling out a fresh, game-changing approach: putting solar panels on top of canals. This smart move aims to hit two birds with one stone: generating green energy and conserving water, both of which are gold in these dry regions. Stick with SunValue as we dive into how this savvy approach is taking shape in California, Utah, and Oregon, all thanks to hefty support from federal funds and a strong commitment to boosting environmental sustainability.

The Scoop: Unpacking Recent Developments

Installing solar panels over California's canals
Installing solar panels over California's canals

The idea of using high output PV panels over canals is not brand-new but has recently gained traction, fueled by growing environmental concerns and leaps in technology. The Inflation Reduction Act has dedicated $25 million specifically for initiatives that blend solar power systems with water management setups. According to the U.S. Department of Interior, $19.5 million of the funding has been distributed to three major projects in California, Utah, and Oregon, overseen by the Bureau of Reclamation. This move highlights the federal government's push for cutting-edge solutions that save water and boost green energy.

The Genesis of Solar Canals in the U.S.

Back in 2015, California was hit hard by its fourth consecutive year of severe drought, causing the ground to crack and crunch under the relentless sun. In response, then-Governor Jerry Brown made a bold move, mandating a 25% reduction in household water usage—a first of its kind. Farmers, the biggest water users, also stepped up voluntarily to stave off even harsher restrictions. Amid these drastic measures, Brown was also pushing for another ambitious target: powering California with 50% renewable energy.

As climate pressures mounted, the founders of a private solar company named Solar AquaGrid saw a golden opportunity. They proposed a clever solution that tackled both water conservation and climate change—covering irrigation canals with best efficiency solar panels. But despite their enthusiasm, they hit a wall, as no one was ready to take the leap.

Fast forward to today, and the landscape has dramatically changed. With the state grappling with severe heatwaves, massive wildfires, and a looming water crisis along the Colorado River, there's a renewed urgency to combat climate change. In the middle of this environmental turmoil, Solar AquaGrid is stepping up, set to roll out the first-ever solar-covered canal in the U.S. in 2024. Known as Project Nexus, this exciting venture plans to stretch solar panel canopies across parts of the Turlock Irrigation District's waterways.

And with fresh federal support just announced, what started as a small project is about to blow up big time—not just in California, but in other states too. Get ready to see these solar canals shake up the world of renewable energy and water conservation, mixing cool innovation with serious sustainability.

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Detailed Look at the Projects

California's Solar Initiative

California is leading the charge with the largest project in the lineup, with the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority receiving $15 million to install floating solar arrays on the Delta-Mendota Canal. It’s a massive team effort, combining the strengths of both public and private sectors, with important academic support from the University of California-Merced. The researchers will be testing out different types of floating solar technologies to see how well they work, how much they cost, and what the overall advantages are. The ultimate aim? To nail down solar PV designs that not only handle the tricky business of moving water but also conquer the specific challenges this setup throws their way.

Oregon's Green Push

In Oregon, the North Unit Irrigation District is putting $2.55 million to work by setting up solar panels over the main canal of the Deschutes Project near Bend. This effort is designed to test how well they can help with water conservation and how much efficient solar energy they can produce. By shielding the canals with solar panels, the initiative expects to greatly reduce water evaporation, preserving one of the region's critical natural resources.

Utah's Solar Canal Trial

Utah is rolling out a $1.5 million initiative on the Layton Canal near West Haven. Over the next five years, this experimental project aims to gather detailed information on how well solar canals work and whether they make economic sense to implement widely. The findings from this effort will be key to figuring out if it's practical to broaden the use of solar canals not just regionally but also in areas that share similar geographical traits.

Scientific Basis and Environmental Benefits

The idea behind solar canals has solid science to back it up. For instance, research from the University of California points out that if solar panels were to cover California's 4,000 miles of canals, they could cut down water evaporation by 63 billion gallons every year. Plus, the panels throw shade on the water, keeping it cooler. This not only improves water quality but also reduces the growth of harmful algal blooms.

The perks of solar canals don't stop at saving water. These setups generate clean energy, reducing our dependency on fossil fuels and helping fight climate change. What's more, by leveraging existing canal infrastructure, these projects steer clear of the environmental harm that often comes with building new solar farms from scratch on untouched land.

Economic and Community Advantages

From an economic standpoint, solar canals are a major boost to sustainable infrastructure, creating jobs not only during their construction but also through ongoing maintenance. These projects deliver a reliable supply of clean energy, which helps keep local energy costs steady and supports the community's move towards energy freedom.

Solar canals bring great benefits to local communities by improving energy security and potentially lowering energy costs. Beyond that, they act as dynamic educational and research centers, fueling community interest and knowledge about how renewable energy and water conservation can work together for a greener future.

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Obstacles and Opportunities Ahead

While solar canals offer a host of benefits, they come with challenges that could slow down their wider use. The initial PV panel installation cost is steep, and merging these systems with existing infrastructure demands meticulous coordination and planning. There are also technical hurdles in maintaining these systems, which can be even trickier in tough environmental settings.

Moving ahead, the insights gathered from the pilot projects in California, Oregon, and Utah are key to expanding the initiative. If these projects hit their marks, we could see this innovative approach spread across the U.S. West and even to other regions around the globe that are grappling with water shortages and the push for more renewable energy.


Installing solar panels over canals is a brilliant blend of water conservation and clean energy production. As these projects evolve, they are shedding light on the massive potential of multi-tasking infrastructure in powering sustainable growth. With the right scaling and tech upgrades, solar canals could become a key player in water and energy strategies, not just in the American West, but all over the world. As we push these projects forward, every bit of new knowledge helps pave the way for innovative projects that mix environmental gains with economic and social good.


Key takeaways

  1. Innovative Solution: Solar panels installed over canals offer a groundbreaking approach to address water scarcity and generate renewable energy simultaneously, presenting a win-win solution for dry regions like the Western United States.
  2. Federal Support: Federal funding, including the Inflation Reduction Act's $25 million allocation, is driving the implementation of solar canal projects in California, Utah, and Oregon, emphasizing the government's commitment to environmental sustainability.
  3. California's Leadership: California leads the initiative with the largest project on the Delta-Mendota Canal, aiming to install floating solar arrays. This collaborative effort involves public-private partnerships and academic research to optimize solar canal designs.
  4. Environmental Benefits: Solar canals reduce water evaporation, enhance water quality, and mitigate the growth of harmful algal blooms. Additionally, they produce clean energy, lowering reliance on fossil fuels and minimizing environmental impact.
  5. Economic and Community Advantages: Solar canal projects create jobs, stabilize local energy costs, and promote energy security. They also serve as educational hubs, fostering community engagement and awareness of renewable energy and water conservation.
  6. Challenges and Opportunities: Despite initial costs and technical hurdles, solar canal projects offer promising solutions to water and energy challenges. Insights from pilot projects will inform future scalability and potential global adoption.
  7. Path to Sustainability: Solar canals represent a significant step towards sustainable infrastructure, demonstrating the potential for integrated solutions to address critical environmental issues. With continued innovation and investment, they could become integral to global water and energy strategies.
Apr 27, 2024
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