The Untapped Potential of Canal Solar Panels: A Closer Look at Their Absence in Mass Implementation

by Andrew Wright
Canal Solar Panels

In the throes of a relentless drought back in 2015, California was compelled to introduce drastic measures, including a first-of-its-kind 25% reduction in household water usage, directed by then-Governor Jerry Brown. The farming community, known for its heavy water usage, also opted to voluntarily reduce consumption to evade more severe obligatory reductions.

At the same time, Governor Brown charted a course for the state to derive half of its power from renewable sources, a pressing requirement in the face of escalating climate change.

One solution—establishing solar panels above irrigation canals—however, found no takers, despite its promise.

Fast forward to 2023, and the landscape has shifted. Intense heat, record wildfires, the impending crisis of the Colorado River, growing climate change awareness, and a burgeoning movement have culminated in Solar AquaGrid and its partners preparing to commence the inaugural solar-paneled canal project in the U.S.

Harris, a key figure in the venture, reflects on the urgent need to address these converging issues.

The concept is uncomplicated: install solar panels over canals in areas where sunlight is abundant and water scarce, thus conserving water through reduced evaporation while simultaneously generating electricity.

A study from the University of California, Merced gives credence to this initiative, suggesting that covering California’s 4,000 miles of canals could conserve approximately 63 billion gallons of water. Furthermore, the extensive installation of solar panels could generate a significant quantity of electricity.

However, these estimates, along with other potential advantages, remain largely unproven scientifically. That’s about to change with Project Nexus set to launch in California’s Central Valley.


The notion of canal solar installations has long been considered a dual-purpose solution in California, where both water and affordable land for energy projects are scarce commodities. Despite this, the concept remained largely theoretical until recently.

Harris, previously a record label executive, and Raj, who worked on sustainability campaigns for businesses, recognized the need for a trusted endorsement to boost their idea. They secured funding for UC Merced to examine the impact of solar-paneled canals in California, with encouraging results.

This promising data caught the attention of Governor Gavin Newsom, who urged his secretary of natural resources, Wade Crowfoot, to expedite the project’s implementation.

Simultaneously, Turlock Irrigation District, a provider of power and irrigation, sought to construct a solar project to align with the state’s goal of 100% renewable energy by 2045. Given the high cost of land, the idea of building atop existing infrastructure became appealing, as was the possibility that shade from the panels could control weed growth in the canals—a recurring problem that drains $1 million from their budget annually.

State funding of $20 million transformed this pilot into a tripartite collaboration among private, public, and academic sectors, and preparations are underway to install solar panels along a 1.6-mile stretch of canals.

The UC Merced team will explore impacts on evaporation, water quality, and other factors, under the guidance of Brandi McKuin, the lead researcher on the study.


California isn’t the first to implement this technology. Gujarat, a western state in India, pioneered canal solar installations on a large scale. However, high capital costs, maintenance issues, and a clunky design have hampered its wider adoption.

Despite these challenges, California’s Project Nexus aims to improve upon India’s model with better materials and a more practical design.


Project Nexus could soon have company. The Gila River Indian Community has secured funding to install solar panels on their canals, and the Salt River Project, one of Arizona’s largest utilities, is researching the technology with Arizona State University.

However, as Representative Jared Huffman, D-Calif, observes, water infrastructure is traditionally resistant to rapid change.

Huffman has been promoting the technology for almost a decade and has managed to secure a $25 million provision for a pilot project for the Bureau of Reclamation.

Moreover, over 100 climate advocacy groups have urged Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and Bureau Commissioner Camille Touton to expedite the implementation of solar photovoltaic energy systems over the Bureau’s canals and aqueducts, which could generate over 25 gigawatts of renewable energy and save tens of billions of gallons of water.

Covering every canal is the ultimate goal, according to Huffman, who feels that it’s high time we begin to leverage this technology more broadly.

Correction: An earlier version of this article erroneously stated that panels over California’s canals could generate 13 gigawatts of power. This has been amended to reflect that the accurate term is gigawatt-hours, and to clarify that the exact amount of potential energy generated has not been definitively calculated.

This report is made possible by the Walton Family Foundation’s support of water and environmental policy coverage. All content is solely the responsibility of the AP. Visit the Big Big News for all of AP’s environmental coverage.

Reported by Arasu from Bengaluru, India.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Canal Solar Panels

What is the concept of solar panels on water canals?

The concept involves installing solar panels over irrigation canals, primarily in sunny, water-scarce regions. These panels not only generate electricity but also reduce water evaporation from the canals.

What is Project Nexus?

Project Nexus is a groundbreaking initiative set to launch in California’s Central Valley. It aims to scientifically test the benefits of installing solar panels over canals, a concept that has yet to be broadly implemented.

Who is spearheading the canal solar panel projects in California?

The project in California is a collaborative effort involving Solar AquaGrid, the state government, and academic sectors including a research team from the University of California, Merced.

Why has the canal solar panel concept not been widely adopted in India?

Despite pioneering this technology in Gujarat, India has faced obstacles in wider implementation due to high capital costs, maintenance issues, and a clunky design that limits access for maintenance and emergency crews.

What are some potential benefits of canal solar panels according to studies?

A study by the University of California, Merced, estimates that covering California’s 4,000 miles of canals could save about 63 billion gallons of water by reducing evaporation. Additionally, the installed solar panels could generate a significant amount of electricity.

What are some future prospects for canal solar panels in the US?

Beyond California’s Project Nexus, the Gila River Indian Community has received funding to install solar panels on their canals, and Arizona’s Salt River Project is studying the technology in collaboration with Arizona State University. Furthermore, over 100 climate advocacy groups are advocating for a broader implementation of this technology across the Bureau’s canals and aqueducts.

More about Canal Solar Panels

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JoshM July 22, 2023 - 6:02 am

ive been in solar industry for years and it’s stuff like this thats gets me excited. There are so many untapped opportunities for renewable energy.

OliverT July 22, 2023 - 6:20 am

why is it always about money?? if its good for the planet then just do it, the costs will balance out in the long run. Climate change is a more pressing issue.

DannyH July 22, 2023 - 9:53 am

So interesting. I mean we got canals, we got sun – why not? Solar is the future folks. And saving water too, just a no-brainer.

EcoWarrior July 22, 2023 - 3:58 pm

Fascinating stuff, isn’t it? I’ve always thought we should be utilising every bit of space we have for renewable energy. Let’s hope this project’s a big success!

KarenS July 22, 2023 - 8:03 pm

Wow! I had no idea about this. We have canals running dry here in Arizona, maybe we should look into this too. Saving water + making energy, seems like win-win to me.

IreneD July 23, 2023 - 3:12 am

And they say innovation’s dead! This could be a gamechanger for places facing droughts, not just in California but all over the world.


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