There’s a new field of funding opportunities opening up to farmers and it’s for something that area farmers have plenty of – sunshine.
Agrivoltaics is the practice of planting crops and solar panels in the same fields with the combination benefiting the crops and generating energy. Rather than being close to the ground, the solar panels are raised to a height that allows for farm equipment to pass through underneath. The plants are protected from the the height of the midday sun and dehydration, while the microclimate created by the crops helps the solar plans operate at a higher rate of efficiency.
The U.S. Department of Energy’s Solar Futures Study predicts that as much as 40 percent of the nation’s electrical supply will come from solar by the next decade. But to meet that need, it would mean wide swaths of land would need to be used. Agrivoltaics allows for the farming and solar supply to work on the same land.
The field of agrivoltaics is expanding and a new pilot project is being tested in the region. The Turlock Irrigation District will start installing solar panels over a portion of its existing canals this fall.
In collaboration with the Department of Water Resources, Solar AquaGrid and the University of California, Merced, TID will take part in Project Nexus — the first-ever solar panel over canal development in the United States. The project will assess reduction of water evaporation resulting from midday shade and wind mitigation; improvements to water quality through reduced vegetative growth; reduction in canal maintenance through reduced vegetative growth; and generation of renewable electricity.
The inspiration for the project came from a UC Merced study published last March, which illustrated that covering all of the approximately 4,000 miles of California canals could show a savings of 63 billion gallons of water annually, comparable to the amount needed to irrigate 50,000 acres of farmland or meet the residential water needs of more than 2 million people. According to the study, the 13 gigawatts of solar power the solar panels would generate each year would equal about one sixth of the state’s current installed capacity.
“The Solar AquaGrid model provides a combined, integrated response to addressing our water-energy nexus,” UC Merced Professor Roger Bales said. “It helps address California’s underlying vulnerabilities while meeting both state and federal level commitments to produce renewable energy, preserve natural lands, lower greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate climate change.”
The $20 million project is funded by the State of California and groundbreaking will take place this fall, with the project’s completion expected in 2024 at multiple locations throughout the TID service territory. The project will utilize already-existing infrastructure, and energy storage will be installed to study how storage facilities can support the local electric grid when solar generation is suboptimal due to cloud cover.
There are a total of three project sites planned along various sections of TID’s canal system, and in total, 8,500 feet of solar panels will be installed. The three sections are areas of various orientations and canal widths, ranging from 20 feet wide to 100 feet wide.
TID has retained Bay Area development firm Solar AquaGrid as project developers and program managers for TID and Project Nexus. The two agencies have been collaborating since the project’s inception. Solar AquaGrid originated the project after commissioning the UC Merced study in 2015 and has facilitated collaboration among the various parties to bring Project Nexus to fruition.
“Research and common sense tell us that in an age of intensifying drought, it’s time to put a lid on evaporation,” said Jordan Harris, CEO of Solar AquaGrid. “We are excited to partner with Turlock Irrigation District, DWR and UC Merced to develop this first-in-the-nation pilot project and bring needed innovation to the Central Valley. Our initial study revealed mounting solar panels over open canals can result in significant water, energy, and cost savings when compared to ground-mounted solar systems, including added efficiency resulting from an exponential shading/cooling effect. Now is the chance to put that learning to the test.”