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Environmentalists push feds to add solar panels over US canals

Placing solar panels over existing federal canals would create renewable power and prevent valuable water from evaporating at the same time, the groups said.

WASHINGTON (CN) — Making the push for an unprecedented investment in renewable energy, more than 100 environmentalists sent a letter Thursday urging US officials to consider installing solar panels above nearly 8,000 miles of federally owned and operated open-air canals and aqueducts.

“This could potentially generate over 25 gigawatts of renewable energy — enough to power nearly 20 million homes — and reduce water evaporation by tens of billions of gallons,” the letter sent to the Interior Department and Bureau of Reclamation said.

The collective, which includes Greenpeace and the Endangered Species Coalition, emphasized that this kind of renewable energy initiative is unique in that it could be done without destroying wildlife habitats, since it would use existing structures.

Strapping solar panels on top would not only generate power, the groups said, but reduce evaporative water loss due to droughts caused by climate change.

“Instead of sacrificing even more public lands, the Interior Department should deploy renewable energy in places that have already been developed, like water canals,” said Brett Hartl, government affairs director at the Center for Biological Diversity, a nonprofit conservation group that signed onto the letter. “We don’t have to pave over thousands of acres of desert public lands and destroy wildlife habitat for renewable energy. This initiative can help reduce water loss, create jobs in frontline communities and preserve public lands.”

The groups noted such action could pull the US into compliance with the Energy Act of 2020, which pledged to seek permit leases for at least 25 gigawatts of electricity from wind, solar, and geothermal projects on federal land by 2025.

“The Bureau of Reclamation has full authority to execute this plan,” the groups wrote, noting Congress has provided the Department of the Interior with the authority to grant leases to authorize uses of Bureau of Reclamation lands.

Many canals operated by the Bureau of Reclamation are located in areas with poor air quality near communities composed primarily of persons of color living below the poverty line, the groups wrote.

“In addition to addressing air pollution, focusing the deployment of renewable energy on the bureau’s canal system could also provide additional benefits of providing clean energy that displaces existing dirty energy in those communities, while also providing increased job opportunities,” it said.

What’s more, desert land advocates say that adding solar panels over canals would help conserve desert ecosystems, where renewable energy projects might otherwise be built.

Cody Hanford, joint executive director at the Mojave Desert Land Trust, a California-based conservation group that signed the letter, emphasized this in a statement Thursday.

“We work with federal agencies every day to ensure that conservation is a part of our energy transition,” he said. “Prioritizing solar development on canals and in urban areas can help reduce pressure on our vulnerable desert wildlands.”

California has already started a pilot project called Project Nexus to install solar panels over some of its canals in the Turlock Irrigation District outside of Modesto, California. The project is a collaboration between the state, a private company called Solar AquaGrid that will serve as project developer, and researchers at the University of California, Merced.

In 2021, researchers found that covering the Golden State’s 3,945 miles of canals with solar panels could produce an enormous amount of clean energy every year, and slow the evaporation of 63 billion gallons of water — an exciting prospect for the drought-prone area.

Additionally, the researchers said that while the steel trusses and cables used to suspend solar panels over waterways are more expensive than traditional ground or roof mounting solutions, they are much cheaper than the cost of land acquisition.

Countries like India and Lebanon have likewise begun to install similar systems.

A project in Gurjarat, India, kicked off in 2012 and is expected to generate 1 megawatt of electricity while preventing the evaporation of 2.4 million gallons of water annually. That project spans 2,460 feet and they found the price per megawatt to be substantially lower than that of traditional solar farms.

Globally, a record amount of renewable electricity is being added by governments and consumers in 2023 who are looking to take advantage of a boom in solar power and dodge increased fossil fuel prices, which spiked after Russia’s attack on Ukraine.

The Department of the Interior declined to comment and the Bureau of Land Reclamation did not respond to a request for comment on the letter Thursday.

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