In 2015, California was facing its fourth consecutive year of drought. This prompted then-Governor Jerry Brown to implement a 25 percent reduction in home water use. Brown also announced that the state would aim to obtain 50 percent of its energy from renewable sources.

During this time, entrepreneurs Jordan Harris and Robin Raj came up with the idea of installing solar panels over irrigation canals to address water loss and pollution. However, their concept initially faced resistance. It took eight years for their company, Solar AquaGrid, to gain momentum.

Now, with worsening heat, devastating wildfires, and a looming crisis on the Colorado River, Solar AquaGrid is set to start the first-ever solar canal project in the US. The proposal is simple: by placing solar panels over canals in sunny, water-scarce regions, the panels can reduce evaporation and produce electricity.

Though the concept of solar canals has been discussed in California for some time, it remained only a theory until recently. Harris and Raj sought support by funding a study at UC Merced to examine the impact of solar-covered canals in California.

The UC Merced study estimated that California could save 63 billion gallons of water and generate 13 gigawatts of power by placing solar panels on all of its canals. This would be enough to power the entire city of Los Angeles from January to early October.

The study’s results, which were published in 2021, caught the attention of Governor Gavin Newsom. The UC Merced study led to a collaboration between public, private, and academic sectors to pilot a solar canal project in the Central Valley.

There are indications that other regions are also exploring the implementation of solar canals. The Gila River Indian Tribe received funding to install solar panels on their canals to conserve water and reduce stress on the Colorado River. Meanwhile, the Salt River Project in Arizona is studying the technology alongside Arizona State University.

Harris’s and Raj’s project will cover two Central Valley canals with solar panels, namely the California Aqueduct and the Delta Mendota canal.

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