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A first-in-the-nation project to put solar panels over canals begins near Turlock

Project locations are located just outside of Ceres and outside of Turlock Lake in the Hickman area.

TURLOCK, Calif. — A small portion of Turlock Irrigation District's canals will be part of a first-of-its-kind project that puts solar panels over canals.

"On its surface, it's putting solar panels over canals, right? Not necessarily groundbreaking, however, this is the first type of project in California... this is really a groundbreaking project and the first in the nation," said Josh Weimer, External Affairs director for TID.

The project is formally known as Project Nexus. It follows research out of UC Merced that studied how putting solar panels over canals could net some positive impacts for the state. During the project, TID will have their eyes on water evaporation, improvements to water quality, canal maintenance and renewable energy generation. 

Weimer says Project Nexus will serve as the proof of concept for the UC Merced study.

While the idea seems simple enough, there's a reason why it's taken till now for there to be action. Weimer said there were concerns over how it could impact water deliveries and canal maintenance, but as TID dove deeper into the idea, they realized that they can design a solar panel system that avoids those issues.

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The project breaks ground in the fall and is expected to wrap up in 2024 throughout TID's service territory. One of the areas will be just outside of Ceres at a canal section roughly 25-feet wide.

"In that section, that first location, there's two different ways that we're going to be doing it, facing the panel's different directions -- the canals run a few different ways. And so, we're really gonna be able to try out different types of mounting techniques, right there at one location," Weimer said.

The other location will be a larger canal just outside of Turlock Lake in the Hickman area. It's about 110 feet wide.

"These two options allow us to try out different technology for spanning and mounting solar panels over canals," Weimer said.

Weimer said a successful project sees no impacts to TID water deliveries and also sees five megawatts of renewable energy. However, TID will also be looking at key performance indicators for water quality, aquatic growth, energy storage and maintenance. At the end of it all, they'll see if the concepts from the UC Merced study pan out and if this something that they would want to scale up.

One the bigger questions is on water evaporation. Weimer said no one knows the actual amount of water savings this project could generate yet, but it is something they'll be researching along with their partners at UC Merced.

"In today's world and how we are operating our system, saving every possible drop of water for future beneficial use is something that we are really trying to focus on. And so, any potential water savings is a water benefit to our ratepayers and to our growers," Weimer said.

In addition, Weimer said TID is interested in reducing weeds that grow in the canals. The idea is that the solar panels will block the sunlight and prevent the weeds from growing and blocking irrigation canals. 

"Maintaining our canals and making sure that those weeds are not blocking any of our irrigation delivery is a very large job that our construction and maintenance team do on a yearly basis. And so, the potential that this reduces canal maintenance is something that we're very interested in," Weimer said.

If it pans out, officials say the project could be seen as a template that could be replicated in the state to help with water and energy goals. The state is giving TID $20 million to find out if it does.

“We are excited to explore new ways to advance the integration of renewable energy into our water supply delivery system,” said Karla Nemeth, DWR Director. “The project offers great potential, and we look forward to collaborating with our partners to advance these types of multi-benefit projects.”

RELATED: UC Merced study: Solar panels over California canals ‘makes a lot sense’ in renewable future

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