Solar energy is clean, but it usually takes up huge tracts of land. In India, an alternative is turning the country’s ca


As the harsh midday sun beats down on a small, dusty village in Gujarat, western India, lines of blue solar panels on steel support structures snake their way to the horizon.

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Solar energy is clean, but it usually takes up huge tracts of land. In India, an alternative is turning the country’s canals into glittering trails of solar panels.
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As the harsh midday sun beats down on a small, dusty village in Gujarat, western India, lines of blue solar panels on steel support structures snake their way to the horizon. The panels cover the top of irrigation canals, gleaming like iridescent mirrors. This small village of 40 homes with thatched walls and tin roofs, and lumbering stray cows, was one of rural India’s many communities who, until recently, did not have electricity. But now a lamp lights each home so children can study at night, and farmers can milk their cows long after sunset.

India has relied traditionally on coal-fired power plants, which generated 72% of the country’s electricity in 2018-19. India’s combination of abundant sunshine – about 300 sunny days in a year – and a large energy-hungry population makes it an ideal location for solarThe country’s solar capacity reached 36.6GW at the end of the first quarter of 2020, with the aim of growing to 100GW by 2022.

But one of the main challenges in building solar farms is finding the right place to do it. Land is relatively expensive in India and often has multiple owners, so the purchase of land involves many formalities. India’s high population density also puts pressure on the land, with an average of 464 people per square kilometre. Rooftop solar panels are one solution, but sunny space atop buildings is limited too.

In Gujarat, the answer has been to cover its canals with solar panels, as a solution that saves land, water and carbon emissions in one.

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In the last few years, the solar energy market's focus has shifted from large-scale utility projects, to smaller projects that make more innovative use of space, says Payal Saxena, manager of strategy consulting at Gensol Engineering, and canal-top solar is a prime example.

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