About seven years ago my friend Roger Clark (no relation) at the Grand Canyon Trust (the folks who are cleaning up or working to retire coal-fired power plants in the Southwest) suggested that we should consider covering the Central Arizona Project with solar panels.
If you don’t know (and you really, really should), the Central Arizona Project delivers about 1.5 million acre-feet of water to central and southern Arizona from the Colorado River on the AZ/CA border. One acre-foot is about 325,000 gallons of water, so about 488 billion gallons. You use, on average, about 60 gallons of water per person per day, just to live here. Basically, if we did not have this canal, we could not have nearly the population in Arizona that we have now.
Arizona, California, Nevada, New Mexico and Colorado all take water from the Colorado River system. Very, very little runs down through Mexico to the Gulf of Baja, and what does run there is full of fertilizer and chemicals. But that is another story.
Regardless, we need to save as much water as we can. The canal loses about 4.4 percent of its water to evaporation. That equals about 66,000 acre-feet of water, or about 21 billion gallons of water. That’s a lot of water slides, people.
This canal is not covered because, as the CAP Board website tells us, the cost of installation would have quadrupled from what it was at about $3.6 billion to about $14.4 billion. So, they say it is cost prohibitive to cover the canal.
That is where Roger Clark believed that we could kill two birds with one stone. We could cut down on that evaporation while generating electricity. Why do we want to generate electricity here? Well, because in order to pump the water to Phoenix, we use about 400 megawatts of coal-fired power from a plant here in Arizona. What if we could pump that water primarily with solar power? That would be a huge drop in the amount of CO2s that we produce, as a state. Even if we can’t reliably pump the water all the time (like, when there are clouds), we could still sell the green energy elsewhere.
So, Roger, et. al were told that they were crazy and that it was all pie in the sky. I was told the same when I talked about it as a legislator and when I worked in the energy field. Since then, I’ve only dared to hope that one day I could help make this happen —way off in the future.
But the future can be now. This is where the “I Told You So” Department gets to do its work. Please see this article from India where they covered about 1 kilometer of a similar canal with solar panels and generated about 1 megawatt of electricity. The local electricity corporation did it with a contract with Sun Edison.
So, here are four reasons why this is great news:
1) Our canal is 336 miles long, or about 541 kilometers. If you assume 1 megawatt per kilometer, and take out about 25% of the total length to assume that they can’t put panels everywhere along cities, etc., you can have a power station on our canal that generates about 400 megawatts.
2) Unlike other massive projects that take up vast amounts of land in the desert, and which could possibly disturb sensitive habitat, this land is already accounted for.
3) You may not eliminate the entire 4.4 percent evaporation. But you would probably save half of that, at least. That is over 10 billion acre feet of water! Personally, I think we should commit to send some of that to the Gulf of Baja so that they can rebuild that massive Baja Delta and maybe, I dunno, rebuild and stabilize their local economy!
4) If we generate excess power that is “green power”, we get to sell it at a premium to the power hungry folks in California –the Whole Foods of power consumption. That means money coming in to Arizona, instead of going out.
So, as you probably know, I totally geek out on big infrastructure projects like this. I love them because they are also crucial for us to find more sustainable ways to live in the desert.
I hope that Paul Newman, Sandra Kennedy and Marcia Busching make it in to the Corporation Commission so they can work on this. It would also help if we got Heather Macre on the Central Arizona Water Conservation District Board.