India's Bold Plan to Cover 1,000 Miles of Canals With Solar Power Plants

India's gamble on solar canals may be paying off—and providing clean power to millions of people.

Jun 16 2014, 6:35pm
Image: Hitesh vip, Wikimedia Commons

The concept is beautiful in its simplicity: Take long stretches of open canals in dry, sunny terrain, and cover them with solar panels. Which is precisely what India's coastal state of Gujurat is planning to do on a huge scale. In 2012, it launched a project that aims to turn its vast network of canals—which currently spans 11,000 miles—into a massive, serpentine solar power plant. 

With just ten percent of the existing network covered—the state's current aim—the solar canals would boast a capacity of 2.2 gigawatts of power, according to the Hindu Business Line. In the US, one gigawatt is enough to power up to 750,000 homes—in India, where the average home usurps far less electricity, it could power many, many more. Those 1,000 miles of solar canals could just about light up the entire region.

But the project is much more than another welcome large-scale solar effort, because the design is uniquely symbiotic. The solar roofs won't just generate power, they'll block the water below from the sun's glare to deter evaporation—meaning more of the water moving through the canals will be available for crop irrigation and drinking. The coolness of the water, in turn, will keep the panels at a more efficient operating temperature.

Meanwhile, building solar right on top of idle infrastructure like open canals means the project will face far fewer controversial land use issues—a huge problem that plagues big solar plants. There are no desert tortoises in danger of losing their homes here, no expensive, complicated land use deals—the authority that manages the canal is partnering directly with Gujurat's top energy corporation on the project—and fewer angry NIMBYs.

Gujurat is simply repurposing unremarkable looking, utilitarian canals to serve double duty in an energy-starved region. The pilot project, which provides 1 MW worth of power, was finished two years ago—without lengthy legal challenges or discontented civilians.

"Gujarat has shown the way" with the commissioning of the world's first 1 MW canal-top solar power plant in Mehsana district, India's New and Renewable Energy Minister Farooq Abdullah said upon its completion. Now, it's been expanded to 10 MW after a successful test case scenario. In other words, it will likely be slow going before the region gets anywhere near that magic 2.2 gigawatt number.

Other issues loom, too. Moisture and electronics make poor bedfellows, typically, so the network may be more difficult to maintain than normal. Same goes for installation; a support structure must be built for the panels to rest on, which means building the panels is more difficult than arranging them on flat land. Transmission could prove tricky, too, as miles of solar canals are going to need a lot of cables. 

Still, it's a promising concept, and Gujurat's utility has decided that the pros outweigh the cons. And India's new prime minister, Narendra Modi, who hails from Gujurat himself, recently launched an ambitious solar power initiative, which could speed the adoption of the renewable canals.

With the threats posed by climate change and water scarcity growing more pressing with each passing day, and fossil fuel burn showing no signs of slowing down, now is the time to experiment with ambitious clean ideas. Let's try to grow agave with solar panels. Let's try to turn islands into wind turbine batteries. Let's try covering canals with hundreds of miles of solar panels—it could prove a powerful two-for-the-price-of-one at a time when millions of people need it most.