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Episode #90: 'Diving Into Project Nexus And Floating Solar' With Josh Weimer of Turlock Irrigation District [an Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Podcast]

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The ‘Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Podcast’ features conversations with thought leaders in the utility sector. Each two weeks we’ll connect with an Energy Central Power Industry Network...

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Every so often, we hear about breakthroughs taking place in the laboratory setting or academic papers that highlight the type of program that has the power to transform the utility sector, and they get touted and shared in headlines, social media, and elsewhere. Too often, though, it seems the story ends there: the practical application falls apart when put up to scrutiny, the economics of putting them into place creates hurdles not previously foreseen, or they otherwise suffer from being more hype than reality. But that outcome doesn't always need to be the case, and in the current rush to enhance the energy transition towards more clean energy resources we need all the buy in we can get.

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That was the perspective of Turlock Irrigation District (TID) when the utility became aware of broad proclamations from an academic study on the possibilities tied to installing floating solar panels on the nation's canal systems. While the study was theoretical, TID recognized that they had the type of canal system in their assets and the energy needs across their service area to be perfectly aligned to put the conclusions of this study to the test, and so that's what they did. In this episode of the podcast, TID's External Affairs Department Manager, Josh Weimer, joins podcast host Jason Price and producer Matt Chester to chat about what ultimately became known as Project Nexus and how and why the utility was eager to be the first to pilot this high potential project.

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Thanks to the sponsor of this episode of the Energy Central Power Perspectives Podcast: West Monroe

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TRANSCRIPT

Jason Price: 

Hello, and welcome to this week's episode of the Energy Central Power Perspectives Podcast, where we bring into the podcast booth leading voices in the world of power and utilities to discuss the challenges, opportunities, and trends they see as transforming and modernizing our energy systems and the utility industry of the future. A quick thank you to West Monroe, our sponsor of today's show. Now, let's talk energy.

Jason Price: 
I'm Jason Price, Energy Central Podcast host and director with West Monroe, coming to you from New York City. With me as always from Orlando, Florida is Energy Central producer and community manager, Matt Chester. Matt, today's episode is a compelling one to us, and surely to our regular listeners as well, as we're going to hear straight from the source about a groundbreaking solar energy pilot project in the utility space. When I say groundbreaking, I only mean it figuratively, as this installation is less about breaking ground and more about utilizing surface area of water, rather than land, for solar generation. Can you explain a bit further for our listeners just what I'm talking about, Matt?

Matt Chester: 
Definitely, Jason. One of the inherent needs of any utility scale solar installation is simply having the physical space to fit well positioned solar panels, so they'll receive unimpeded rays from the sun used to generate clean, renewable electricity. In recent years, the idea of shifting a focus from land area for these installations to the surface area covered by water has started to gain favor and momentum. Sometimes these solar panels are placed directly on water, something colloquially called photovoltaics, but in today's episode, we're going to learn about a first of its kind pilot project out of central California called Project Nexus. I won't steal the thunder of the details from our guests today, but given how much area of this region is covered with canals for irrigation and hydropower, the leaders at this utility realize that they had a unique opportunity for new solar installations, and thus, Project Nexus was born.

Jason Price: 
That's a great preview, Matt. And yes, you said it. I think we're best hearing about all the details of the background implementation and future of this project directly from our guest. So, please let me welcome Josh Weimer to the Energy Central Power Perspectives Podcast. Josh is the external affairs department manager at Turlock Irrigation District in central California. He's been with TID for over seven years, and was fortunate enough to be right at the heart of the Project Nexus. So we're excited to learn more from him. So with that, Josh Weimer, welcome to the Energy Central Power Perspectives Podcast.

Josh Weimer: 
Thanks, Jason. Thank you for having me on.

Jason Price: 
Josh, we're thrilled to have you here. We're excited to learn about the project you're working on. So before we dive in, though, I'm hoping you can give us a clear portrait of Turlock Irrigation District, since you're overseeing not only energy, but water in a unique way. So tell us, how does the irrigation district work and who do you serve?

Josh Weimer: 
Yeah. TID was founded as the first irrigation district in California, back in 1887. We're actually celebrating 135th anniversary this year. As our title clearly states, we're an irrigation district, and at least that's what we started off as. We provide irrigation water to approximately 150,000 acres in central California. The farmers in our area grow over 40 different types of crops and varieties and foods that you all enjoy on your tables every day. We have a wide range of irrigation infrastructure from a hydro facility that stores over two million acre feet for irrigation and municipal uses. But we're also the local electricity provider. We provide electricity to approximately 240,000 people. And we're a local publicly owned utility. We're our own balancing authority. We have a diverse mix of generation assets from solar, hydroelectric, wind, geothermal, and natural gas. We kind of do it all in the area. So in terms of being an irrigation district, we provide that resource to our farmers, and then our electrical resource to our retail customers. And we're also a wholesale power provider as well.

Jason Price: 
That's a great background. So Josh, before you dig into the specifics of Project Nexus, I just want you to take a moment and help us understand a little bit more in terms of the bigger picture of how Project Nexus fits into your clean energy program. And overall, what are the current targets for TID when it comes to clean energy and overall decarbonization?

Josh Weimer: 
TID, we're electric provider in California. So there are quite a few different mandates and requirements on the way that we provide that energy and doing our part to decarbonize the electric grid in California. So the main goals that we're planning for is 60% renewable portfolio standard, or RPS, by 2030, and then a 2045 planning goal of 100% zero carbon retail electric grid. Really, those are the main electric goals and mandates that we are driving towards. So Project Nexus is a part of how we meet those goals. And it's a proof of concept to study installing solar panels over our existing irrigation canals, and seeing how that can play into us meeting our renewable requirements.

Josh Weimer: 
Due to the reliability of our surface water, our land values are incredibly high in the central valley. So as we need to continue to procure more and more renewable energy for us to stay on track to meet these state driven mandates, we need to find a lot of area to potentially install solar and other renewable resources. Land value is such a large driving factor in the overall cost of the project, so if we can minimize the cost of that project, that minimizes the cost to our rate payers. Since we're a publicly owned utility, gets passed directly along to them. So how we can save our customers money is something that we are always looking forward.

Jason Price: 

Yeah, absolutely. Project Nexus is really a novel and smart way to leverage existing assets, natural assets, I guess you could say, from a canal standpoint. But let's dig in now. So what was the inception of this pilot project and what made TID compelled to be the first mover in this space?

Josh Weimer: 
Yeah. Project Nexus is really the culmination of a academic research paper that the University of California at Merced System released a academic paper last year in 2021 that studied, if we were to cover all of California's canals and aqueducts, what would be the benefits? What would be the water benefits? What would be the renewable energy benefits? So when they published this paper ... I should mentioned, UC Merced is just about 20 miles south of where we're located. So when we saw this being released, we thought, "Hey, this is interesting." The concept of putting solar over canals isn't anything new, but it's always just kind of been thrown out there as a potential concept. This paper and the amount of thought process they went through, the peer review process, it kind of just re-flagged it for us. It got our management team here and our board directors interested. As a irrigation district and an electric provider, using our irrigation facilities to help meet our electric goals and potentially seeing some water benefits, we saw this as a potential win-win.

Josh Weimer: 
So right away, we contacted our general manager. She contacted the lead researchers and just started an initial conversation. Wanting to know a little bit more about their study, if they were interested in piloting this concept. That led to multiple meetings, months and months of conversation, site visits, analysis of all of our canal system to see where, and if this would make sense to fit into our electric infrastructure and our water infrastructure. It got us to the point where a few months later down the road, the Department of Water Resources in California, they wrote into the yearly budget, $20 million, to study this kind of pilot project concept for putting solar panels over canals. And TID was selected as that first in the nation concept. We're thrilled with the opportunity.

Jason Price: 
Yeah. No, it sounds great. It's a great story, how you got to where you are today. My understanding is that you're not just generating renewable energy, but you also have some environmental benefits from this project. Can you elaborate on that?

Josh Weimer: 
Yeah. The study had multiple benefits, multiple factors that they looked into. And really, the leading one that I think grabbed all of the headlines in the state and throughout the nation was, if we were to cover all 4,000 miles of California's canals and aqueducts, what would be the water supply benefits? That comes through a reduction in evaporation loss. The study showed that there would be 63 billion gallons of water savings if you were to cover all of those irrigation canals. So that is of interest to California. Obviously water resources is something very important to this state, especially in the third year of a drought.

Josh Weimer: 
But from our perspective, what we're really interested on the water side is something else that they studied that would look at, there would be a reduction in aquatic growth. So it's essentially weeds that grow in our canals. By reducing the amount of weeds, that would increase reliability. It would reduce labor and infrastructure needs. So from a water supply perspective, we're very interested in that. We spend a tremendous amount of time and resources to ensure that our canals are clean, are safe, and that there's no weeds getting in the drops and side gates. Making sure that our customers are able to reliably receive their irrigation water. So from the water side, we're very interested about that. We're interested to know what the evaporation savings would potentially be as well. Any water savings is a benefit to our customers. This is such a small pilot project that we're not anticipating to see a lot of evaporation savings from that.

Josh Weimer: 
The study also looked at, what would be the potential efficiency increases by having solar panels over the canals? The study shows that that would reduce the ambient temperature. In the central California, today, it's 105 here. So it's pretty warm. So by reducing that temperature underneath the panels, the UC Merced study says that that would increase the efficiency of the solar panels. So that's something that we're interested to pilot, to test, to see, is that true? And see what the overall benefits could be.

Jason Price: 
Sure. As you implement and observe Project Nexus, what is going to be the measure of success to determine if this is an area that TID will want to send more investments? What are the next steps to this?

Josh Weimer: 
Yeah. So really, Project Nexus is that proof of concept for that UC Merced paper. So at the highest level, we want to see is that paper, when we install and build this project, is what they anticipate and say in the paper. "Is it true? Does it play out in the real world?" So we're very interested in seeing that.

Josh Weimer: 
Project Nexus is going to be five megawatts of solar. We have over 250 miles of canals in our service territory, all different shapes and sizes and directions. So this is really broken up into two parts. The first part is covering essentially 8,000 feet of canals. Those canals are going to be about 25 feet wide. So we're going to be piloting different mounting structures, different ways to span the canal, whether it's a cable suspension or cantilevering over the canal. So just trying out a couple different options to see which one works the best, which one is, from an operations and maintenance perspective, is better for TID.

Josh Weimer: 
And then the second location, that canal is much larger. It's what we call the main canal. That's over 110 feet wide. So obviously the way that we span that is going to be very different from the other site location. So really, that's what we're excited about this project. It's not just seeing the end results, the efficiency, what is the potential energy benefit, the aquatic growth reduction benefit? But it's seeing along the way, "How does this project work? How do we build this? How do we maintain? How do we clean the solar panels that are spanning over 110 foot wide canal?" We have a lot of different measurements all throughout the process, just from the way that we build it, the way that we maintain and operate it.

Josh Weimer: 
And then at the end of the construction, which we're hoping and anticipating will be the end of next year, 2023, then it'll be about two and a half years that the UC Merced System will be doing extensive research on all components of this project. And then they're going to be issuing a few finalized reports to provide even more granular detail. And they're also going to be looking at scalability. So based off of this pilot project, factoring in their scalability models and saying, "Is this something that would potentially make sense for TID to do on more of our canal systems?" And on California as a whole, "Does it make sense for this type of project to be installed, to meet our water and climate goals?"

Jason Price: 
That's great, Josh. What are the metrics or what are the thoughts around the pilot not moving forward? What would those characteristics be that might prevent the pilot from being treated as a success?

Josh Weimer: 
That's a great question. Really, the potential unknowns, the barriers has been why this type of project hasn't moved forward in the past. Like I said, we're an irrigation district. We've been providing the same service on the irrigation side for 135 years. Many water operators, the idea of changing or putting potential impediments into the way that we maintain and deliver water in our system, that's always been a reason not to take the step forward. But we're in a different world now. We are a different world on the water side and on the energy side. So looking for creative solutions to solve the challenges that we are facing, this is an opportunity.

Josh Weimer: 
We're running headlong into all of these challenges and the potential barriers, and really the maintaining and cleaning of our canal system is at the top. We are designing this project to ensure that reliability of our irrigation system, both in terms of the physical canals themselves and the delivery of the water to the customers, isn't going to be impeded. That's number one. Although, we have all these renewable goals we have to meet, if we're limiting our ability to do our core function, which is to deliver irrigation, reliable and affordable irrigation water and electricity to our customers, if we're getting in the way of that goal by doing this project, that's not beneficial. That's not going to be something that we're going to scale to move forward with. So we're pretty aware of the potential downfalls.

Josh Weimer: 
Obviously, there's going to be more once you start getting into it, but we have a very capable and forward thinking team at TID, all the way from our upper management to our civil engineering team that is helping design this, to our construction and maintenance, and then to our electrical infrastructure team. That's something that I think is so unique about TID, the fact that we are the irrigation provider, so we have the water infrastructure, and we're the electric provider. In many of the cases, our electrical infrastructure runs directly along our canal system. So it makes so much sense to interconnect and to tying our system at these locations, because we have both infrastructure right there. From a pilot perspective, we're a locally owned agency. So it removes quite a few of the bureaucratic steps by going through us. So we're able to take this pilot project from really being released last year in 2021, to having a fully built out and operating system in less than two years. I think that that is really tremendous.

Jason Price: 

Much appreciate the response and candor. We certainly feel fortunate to learn more about Project Nexus during the course of today's episode. But we also have something called the lightning round, where we get an opportunity to learn more about you, Josh the person, not Josh the engineer. So we are going to ask you a couple of questions, where your response will be just one word or phrase. Are you ready?

Josh Weimer: 
Let's do it.

Jason Price: 
Favorite summertime food?

Josh Weimer: 
Tacos.

Jason Price: 
What's your favorite way to wind down after a long day at the office?

Josh Weimer: 
Taking walks with my son.

Jason Price: 

What career path would you potentially have gone down if you didn't end up in the utility world?

Josh Weimer: 
I'm a political science major, so politics.

Jason Price: 
What's the best piece of advice you've ever gotten?

Josh Weimer: 

Bring solutions to any problems that you raise.

Jason Price: 
What are you most passionate about?

Josh Weimer: 
Sports: basketball, golf, Formula 1 racing, anything.

Jason Price: 
Terrific. You've navigated that perfectly. We want to give you the last word to our audience. So knowing that your peers and partners across the utility industry are listening, what is the final takeaway message that you hope they walk away from today's conversation?

Josh Weimer: 
Really, I hope people walk away with reevaluating how we in the utility space plan to meet the changing dynamics, the changing goals that are being placed on us. I think re-imagining, reevaluating maybe concepts that we have heard about in the past under the new paradigm, might lead to some pretty innovative and multi-benefit solutions. Really, that's what we view Project Nexus as. We're uniquely situated as both the water and electric provider. But I'm sure that that's the case in multiple places throughout the state and the country. Know this is something that we've had a lot of interest in from people all throughout the country, and honestly, the world, who are looking very closely at this project to see, does this make sense? Really, there's a large audience for this project, and the way that we execute this is going to really determine if others jump on board.

Josh Weimer: 
So we're excited, and we're excited to take on that challenge. We think that this has a lot of potential. As we talk about decarbonizing the electric grid, that's going to provide a whole host of challenges and issues that we have to address moving forward. I think this type of project is very beneficial, specifically to our local need. I think that's something that we're excited about doing, because localizing the electric generation resource to our specific area is going to help us. As I mentioned, we're a balancing authority. We have that obligation to meet moment by moment load and need and generation. So having more local generation is going to be crucial for that. So we're very excited about this project.

Josh Weimer: 
We have multiple ways for people to keep up to speed with what's happening. We have tid.org/projectnexus. That's kind of the one-stop shop for all of Project Nexus updates. So we have fact sheets and FAQs and photos. Once we break ground this fall, we're going to be putting more photos and drawings and time lapse videos up on that website. We obviously have the whole slew of social media, from Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram. We have a podcast, TID Water and Power, that we go into a deep dive on this topic. So we're excited to keep the public and keep our utility professionals and peers up to speed on this. There's a lot of interest. So we appreciate the opportunity to come on this podcast and to be able to speak to such a large audience about this topic.

Jason Price: 
Yeah, we feel the same way. We're thrilled to have you on. When we heard about Project Nexus, we were anxious to get someone to share more of it. So we really appreciate, Josh, your time today in sharing this wisdom. And hopefully there'll be a lot of follow up and activity on the Energy Central Platform about this discussion today. So thank you again for joining us in today's episode of the podcast.

Josh Weimer: 
Thanks for the opportunity. It was great.

Jason Price: 
You can always reach Josh at the Energy Central Platform, where he welcomes your questions and comments. We also want to give a shout out of thanks to the podcast sponsor that made today's episode possible. Thanks to West Monroe. West Monroe works with the nation's largest electric gas and water utilities in their telecommunication, grid modernization, and digital and workforce transformations. West Monroe brings a multidisciplinary team that blends utility, operations, and technology expertise to address modernizing aging infrastructure, advisory on transportation electrification, ADMS deployments, data and analytics, and cyber security. Once again, I'm your host, Jason Price. So plug in and stay fully charged in the discussion by hopping into the community at energycentral.com. We'll see you next time at the Energy Central Power Perspectives Podcast.

 


About Energy Central Podcasts

The ‘Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Podcast’ features conversations with thought leaders in the utility sector. At least twice monthly, we connect with an Energy Central Power Industry Network community member to discuss compelling topics that impact professionals who work in the power industry. Some podcasts may be a continuation of thought-provoking posts or discussions started in the community or with an industry leader that is interested in sharing their expertise and doing a deeper dive into hot topics or issues relevant to the industry.

The ‘Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Podcast’ is the premiere podcast series from Energy Central, a Power Industry Network of Communities built specifically for professionals in the electric power industry and a place where professionals can share, learn, and connect in a collaborative environment. Supported by leading industry organizations, our mission is to help global power industry professionals work better. Since 1995, we’ve been a trusted news and information source for professionals working in the power industry, and today our managed communities are a place for lively discussions, debates, and analysis to take place. If you’re not yet a member, visit www.EnergyCentral.com to register for free and join over 200,000 of your peers working in the power industry.

The Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Podcast is hosted by Jason PriceCommunity Ambassador of Energy Central. Jason is a Business Development Executive at West Monroe, working in the East Coast Energy and Utilities Group. Jason is joined in the podcast booth by the producer of the podcast, Matt Chester, who is also the Community Manager of Energy Central and energy analyst/independent consultant in energy policy, markets, and technology.  

If you want to be a guest on a future episode of the Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Podcast, let us know! We’ll be pulling guests from our community members who submit engaging content that gets our community talking, and perhaps that next guest will be you! Likewise, if you see an article submitted by a fellow Energy Central community member that you’d like to see broken down in more detail in a conversation, feel free to send us a note to nominate them.  For more information, contact us at community@energycentral.com. Podcast interviews are free for Expert Members and professionals who work for a utility.  We have package offers available for solution providers and vendors. 

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