development energy poverty

Building of the week – the solar canal

1.2 billion people in the world don’t have access to electricity, and therefore lack the life-changing technologies of electric light, refrigeration, power tools, or computing. A quarter of those 1.2 billion unconnected people live in India, and providing electricity to them is one of the government’s big priorities.

It’s a major challenge – imagine bringing electricity to the whole of Britain, five times over. That’s what we’re talking about here, in population terms.

To empower its citizens, India is investing tens of billions in wind and solar power – and in coal, unfortunately. Among the flagship projects are the largest solar park in Asia, recently unveiled in Gujarat. It also has plans for the world’s largest floating solar park, although Japan is also after that title. The one I wanted to mention today is the solar canal project. After a successful pilot project in 2012, India now plans to build solar panels over the top of Gujarat’s extensive network of irrigation canals.

Like this:


Why on the canal, you may legitimately ask. Surely it’s cheaper to put solar panels on the ground, of which there must be plenty. I can see some in the photo above. This is true, but unlike the more doubtful proposition of solar roads, there are advantages to sticking solar panels on a canal.

First, the government already owns the canals, so there’s no need to buy land to put solar panels on. Nobody is displaced, there are no planning issues, and land is kept for other things. There are considerable savings to doubling up infrastructure in this way.

Secondly, the solar panels are providing an important by-product: shade. This prevents evaporation from the canals, which are passing through a dry and sun-baked region. Covering the canal saves water, creating a more efficient irrigation system and improving water security for farming communities that rely on the canal.

A smart idea then, despite the slightly extra installation costs of putting solar panels on a steel rig rather than on the floor. The region has over 450 kilometres of main canal, and thousands more in smaller branches. It won’t all be used, but the grand vision is to cover 10% of it – delivering 2.2 GW of solar power, and saving 20 billion litres of water a year. That’s hugely ambitious and the numbers might be more PR than actual plan, we shall have to wait and see.

In the meantime, there are plenty of other countries with irrigation canals in hot and sunny places that might want to investigate this idea a little more.


    1. Good question. They’re irrigation channels off the Narmada dam rather than transport canals, so I expect you can shut off supply and drain them to clear them if necessary. They don’t look like the sort of thing you’d get a traditional dredging barge along.

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