UC ANR research and outreach contributed to implementation of an innovative approach for expanding solar energy production while also delivering water savings to agricultural lands in the Central Valley. A UC Cooperative Extension (UCCE) specialist located at UC Merced collaborated with UC Merced and UC Santa Cruz researchers on a study of energy and water co-benefits from covering irrigation canals with solar panels. The study was published in a high-impact academic journal and subsequently picked up across traditional and social media outlets nationally. The UCCE specialist also conducted extensive outreach, including discussing results with about 150 elected officials at a Latino Leaders for Water Education panel discussion.
The study directly influenced Turlock Irrigation District to implement the first-in-the-nation construction of solar panels over water canals. On February 8, 2022, Turlock Irrigation District was awarded $20 million from the California Department of Water Resources for the project, which the district publicly acknowledged was directly inspired by the UCCE published study. Results show potential water savings of 63 billion gallons of water annually, which is comparable to the amount needed to irrigate 50,000 acres of farmland or meet the residential water needs of more than 2 million people. Moreover, the 13 gigawatts of solar power the panels would generate annually equals about one-sixth of the state’s current installed capacity — roughly half the projected new capacity needed by 2030 to meet the state’s decarbonization goals. This project shows promising potential for water savings and electricity generation that would benefit both agricultural and urban sectors.