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

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 debraatlas@gmail.com or via her blog at www.Envirothink.wordpress.com.