Solar-powered Canals – Are They the Future in California?

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Governor Brown’s recently announced plan to have California derive 50 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020 has opened the door for bold ideas to help achieve this.

Carl Weidert, a retired, self-employed biologist who lives in Shingletown, has spent years garnering interest in his idea of utilizing California’s canals as solar arrays to generate electricity. Of the five governors he’s proposed his innovative plan to, only Governor Schwarzenegger responding favorably.

Approximately 1,000 miles of canals – managed mainly by government agencies – exist throughout California, covering around 100,000 acres. Weidert wants to cover the canals with moveable covers covered with solar panels.

The project has many benefits. It would generate new water and reduce evaporation – making it a viable alternative to raising Shasta Dam. It would also improve water quality, provide new clean energy and new electricity and reduce CO2 emissions.

Weidert says estimates of the water savings from this project range from 29 to 49 percent, saving millions of acre feet of water.

Weidert’s idea has evolved from simply getting the solar panels in place to a free enterprise, leasing proposition. Its latest iteration is as a statewide contest for colleges and universities.

Weidert sees two options for this. One would pay the winning students college tuition for that contest year, up to the maximum state university annual amount. The second option sees participating schools receiving a lump sum which would be divided equally between the participating students.

Both options require state legislation in order to appropriate prize monies for the contest.

“You could do this instead giving the school a block of money ahead of time for testing, etc.,” Weidert said. And this would be an educational component, a built-in business school student project.

“There’s been … a slow decline of innovation in the States,” said Weidert, who added he doesn’t know of anyone else in the U.S. who’s done this kind of project.

One country already embraces this idea. In 2012, the Canal Solar Power Project was established in Gujarat, a state in western India. Commissioned by SunEdison India, it uses that state’s existing 19,000 kilometer-long canal network to set up solar panels to generate power. When completed, the network will be about 85,000 km long.

Estimates say 2,200 MW of solar power generating capacity can be installed by covering the canals with solar panels.

In mid-January, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon launched a new “canal-top” solar energy plant in Gujarat’s Vadodara district. Also India’s Prime Minister Modi upped the country’s investment solar power target to $100 billion, saying India would scale up solar power to over 10 percent of its total energy mix by 2022.

Costs and exposure are decisive factors for this project. According to SSNNL, the 1 MW canal-top plant costs $2.8 million, versus the $2.3 million cost of a 1 MW land-based solar plant. And there are concerns that long-term exposure to environmental stresses and ingress of water into the panels could reduce their performance.

There are up-and downsides to implementing a canal solar array project. On the upside, “once you cover the canals, you’d save that amount of water in ANY year – whether a drought or a wet year,” said Weidert. You’d be leasing less water from the dams, which would put less stress on our aquifers.

A downside is a probable push-back from canal owners, who’d have to coordinate inspections of the canals. And there would be materials expenses, but, says Weidert, it’s the same as when they built solar array in the desert on BLM land.

Could California adopt this innovation as part of the 50 by 2020 challenge? If not, it won’t be for lack of effort on Weidert’s part. He’s propsed his plan to CALFED when it came to Reddig in 2000, to the Energy Committee in the California State Assembly, and to State Assemblyman Brian Dahle. Dahle indicated he’d consider the idea but has yet to get back to Weidert.

It may come down to the public getting behind the idea. When the people speak, politicians listen, at least sometimes.

“If (you) like the idea, write a letter to Dahle or (other state) Assemblyman or State Senator, said Weidert. When enough letters show up on their desks, they take notice.

To reach Debra Atlas, contact her at or via her blog at

A former long-term resident of Redding who loves its natural wonders, journalist and blogger Debra Atlas is reachable or
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13 Responses

  1. Avatar david kerr says:

    This sounds promising. A small pilot study would be worthwhile. In a few years when solar panels become economical, it could be expanded.

    Similarly, the Sundial Bridge could put up a cover now. Then in a few years when solar panels become economical, they could be installed.

    Take a tour of Shasta County on Google Earth. The solar panels on Walmart’s roof are impressive, much larger than the installation at the airport.

  2. Avatar david kerr says:

    With crime up 22% in Chico, the North State needs a green jobs program.

    Why not cover the Sacramento River and its major branches? Why not cover Whiskeytown, Shasta and other lakes? Would a covered stretch be a good place to fish?

    Perhaps Shasta County could use a hatchery for the Delta Smelt. I’ve heard they are tasty.

  3. Avatar cheyenne says:

    The push for more renewable energy by states such as California and Colorado is a boon for Wyoming. As these states, especially California, divest their reliance and ownership of coal plants in other states they are turning to wind power. While Wyoming will lose coal jobs and taxes the loss should be more than made up with jobs and taxes from wind farms. In addition as much of the mineral taxes come from federal land in the state and have to be shared with the feds, these windfarms appear to be mostly on private lands where the land owner and the state receive the money, not the feds.
    The owners of the windfarm by Saratoga, where construction starts next year and power goes to California, stated that the farm will be as big as Los Angeles and it would be impossible to put up that large a farm in California. Another California group was in Cheyenne recently as they are proposing a $9.7 billion dollar windfarm at Chugwater, 43 miles north of Cheyenne
    A windfarm that is being built just south of Cheyenne will send it’s energy to the Colorado front range.
    North Dakota is another mineral rich low population state looking to increase wind power creation.

  4. R.V. Scheide R.V. Scheide says:

    I’ve always liked this idea, it makes too much sense. One caveat I’d like to add is that any investment the state makes to increase water supplied should be coupled to legislation prohibiting the use of water for such environmentally egregious practices as fracking–unfortunately, Gov. Brown has proven himself time and time again to be the friend of the fracker.

    • Avatar Gene Beley says:

      Could the reason be that Governor Brown doesn’t bar fracking is that he is an oil baron? This is a little publicized fact, of course. Just Google Jerry Brown, oil baron, to read a long ago article by a respected journalist. The Brown family’s oil company reportedly supplies the power for at least some of the California power plants. This wealth generator dates back to his father Pat Brown’s close ties with Indonesia when they gave him a franchise for California.

  5. Avatar Barbara Stone says:

    I love this idea…it just sounds like it would supply power as well as preserve water…what could be bad about that!

  6. Avatar Joe Tona says:

    I think water turbine generators would be more practical. They could run 24 hours per day.

    • Avatar John English says:

      This is a brilliant suggestion.
      Why not combine the two electricity generation systems?
      Solar by day, when it’s sunny, and water 24/7.

      This way maximum use is made of the otherwise wasted space devoted to just moving water from one place to another. And of course, the water saved by the covering provided by the solar arrays means that there is actually more water to be used for generating.

  7. Avatar Mike Kelly says:

    Seems promising; I’d like to see an environmental report and cost studies and would not be in favor of destroying any additional natural habitats.

    • Avatar K. Beck says:

      Same here.

      There always seems to be some unforeseen problem popping up.

      Wind farms sounded great until the birds ended up chopped in pieces.

      Solar cells in the desert sound great until you read this:

      What about the problems they had with spawning salmon under the Sun Dial Bridge? What about life forms, other than fish, that might be in the canals? Canals maybe, “OK”, but probably not over rivers, I think.

  8. A. Jacoby A. Jacoby says:

    Great ideas . . . let’s keep ’em growing!

  9. Avatar shankar says:

    Installation of PV solar panels over canals for green energy have already been installed and working successfully in the progressive state of Gujarat(Present India prime minister Mr.Modi’s home state) In addition to generating power, the cover reduces water losses due to evaporation to a great extent. Canal located solar power generation is being extended to all possible areas countrywide.

    India has revised target of 20 gw of solar power by 2020 to 200 gw by 2022.

  10. Avatar Michael Gumm says:

    Actually you don’t need a heavy structure and conventional solar modules!

    You can use a post tension cable system stretched across the canal supporting a TPO roofing membrane with thin film flexible solar modules. CIGS based flexible modules made by Miasole weight less than 0.6 lbs. per sq.ft. A TPO roof membrane system weights under 1.0 lbs. per sq.ft. Total system weight with cables would be less than 1.75 lbs.. per sq.ft. A system like this would have a 25-30 year service life.

    There are three benefits.

    1. The TPO membrane would cut down water evaporation in the canal, saving 4%-5% of the total water moved in the system.

    2. California uses about 18% of all electrical power in the state just to move water. using solar power to offset pumping cost at the canal and for farms would be a huge savings.

    3. The California Land Conservation Act of 1965 (Williamson Act) limits the shifting farm land to land use for solar. Using the canal surface area would reduce the need to use farm land. Plus the canals running through the central valley are right there where the power can be used for irrigation without impacting the farm land.