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SSJID canals could be used to generate hydro & solar power
canal turbine
Photo courtesy Emergy Emrgy crews install turbines to harness the power of water flowing through irrigation canals.

Water and power.

It is what drives economic prosperity.

That is why South San Joaquin Irrigation District that has spent the last  113 years securing, developing and protecting water supplies for Manteca Ripon, and Escalon is pursuing a three-prong strategy in a bid to harness the same water to generate lower cost “green” electricity.

The highest profile — and the one only that the district is committed to pursuing — is the eventual acquisition of the retail  delivery system within its boundaries that is currently operated by PG&E.

Thanks to the Tri-Dam Project the district built in partnership with the Oakdale Irrigation District in the 1950s — SSJID has the financial leverage to reduce the  current retail  power sold by PG&E by 15 percent for customers in Manteca, Ripon, and Escalon.

The district is also looking at:

*Placing turbines generating electricity at points within the district’s canals where there is an adequate drop in flowing water.

 *Installing solar panels over much of its 30 miles of canals and even 300 miles of buried pipeline.

SSJID General Manager Peter Reitkerk last month confirmed the district is actively following first-in-the-nation solar project over canals that is moving forward within the Turlock Irrigation District.

At the same time the district is working with the firm Emrgy to place small power turbines in district canals as a pilot project to see if it makes sense to  place them wherever the district can harness power form the flow of irrigation water.

Reitkerk stressed that the district is simply in the exploratory stage at the moment with both initiatives.

The general manager added the district is committed to exploring power generating options that make sense and can deliver less expensive power that is also cleaner.


The promise of solar

panels over canals

If the solar panels show promise besides generating clean, less expensive renewable energy they also would help reduce evaporation of water from canals.
The TID solar project is a collaboration of Department of Water Resources, Solar AquaGrid and the University of California, Merced.

Dubbed Project Nexus, the $20 million endeavor will assess reduction of water evaporation resulting from midday shade and wind mitigation; improvements to water quality through reduced vegetative growth; reduction in canal maintenance through reduced vegetative growth; and generation of renewable electricity.

The inspiration for the project came from a UC Merced study published in March 2021. The study illustrated that covering all of the approximately 4,000 miles of California canals could show a savings of 63 billion gallons of water annually, comparable to the amount needed to irrigate 50,000 acres of farmland or meet the residential water needs of more than 2 million people.

 According to the study, the 13 gigawatts of solar power the solar panels would generate each year would equal about one sixth of the state’s current installed capacity.


A bunch of mini-power

plants placed in canals

The SSJID board in February took the initial preliminary step to possibly be one of the first irrigation districts in California to place small power generating turbines in its canals.

Emrgy will place test turbines in the main canal between North Dodds Road and Woodward Reservoir. The power generated is anticipated to be half the cost per kilowatt hour than what the district buys from PG&E based on current rates.

The canal turbines, if the SSJID board decides to go with them, would initially augment efforts the district already has in place to reduce water treatment power costs through a 1.4 million kilowatt hour solar array already in place.

But given they simply need sustained flows at a certain level as opposed to significant drops that traditional hydroelectric plants require, it is plausible such turbines could be placed elsewhere besides the initial 10 to 15 locations considered ideal between Woodward Reservoir and the nearby surface water treatment plants.



Effort to secure system from

PG&E is moving forward

SSJID in December cleared another legal hurdle in their bid to acquire the PG&E distribution system within their boundaries in a quest to deliver retail power 15 percent below rates users currently are charged in Manteca, Lathrop, and Ripon.

The California Third District Court of Appeals overturned a 2017 San Joaquin Superior Court ruling on two cases PG&E filed against the San Joaquin County Local Area Formation Commission.

PG&E had sued in the county court arguing that LAFCO had improperly granted SSJID the authority to enter the retail power business by allowing it to proceed by agreeing with the irrigation district they could keep the cities of Manteca, Ripon, and Escalon “whole” by making sure the 2 percent franchise fees that PG&E paid would continue if SSJID takes over the local system.

 Because of that ruling regarding franchise tax fees, the Superior Court also tossed the eminent domain lawsuit SSJID had filed to secure the retail distribution system within their boundaries at market value after PG&E rejected a SSJID offer that irrigation district officials said was above market cost.

The Appeals Court determined it was lawful for the SSJID to do so given they had proven they had adequate revenue from other sources to continue paying what amounts to a 2 percent franchise fee to the three cities. The biggest source of SSJID funds are its share of annual proceeds from the Tri-Dam Project’s wholesale sales from power plants they operate on the Stanislaus River along with the Oakdale Irrigation District. Some years the two districts have split as much as $15 million. The amount fluctuates due to markets as well as snowpack and storage conditions.

A PG&E appeal to the state’s high court aside, the district still has to restart its eminent domain lawsuit against PG&E unless, by chance, the district makes another offer to PG&E and the for-profit utility accepts it.

When SSJID started the current process in 2012, the SSJID committed to give all three cities a 2.5 percent franchise fee instead of the state allowed and city mandated 2 percent. If SSJID and not PG&E were the retail provider in Manteca 2012 that would mean $35,000 more for Manteca’s general fund beyond what PG&E is paying or $545,000 once SSJID’s projected 15 percent in reduction of power rates are factored into the equation.



SMUD with rates 35 percent

lower than PG&E took 23 years

to prevail against the utility

If the 17 years SSJID has invested so far to obtain the local PG&E system seems like a futile effort keep in mind it took 23 years after the people of Sacramento first moved to exercise their right to acquire their local retail system from PG&E and to start delivering electricity in 1946 through the Sacramento Municipal Utility District.

What PG&E is doing to stop SSJID is almost a replay of their efforts in courts for almost a quarter of a century to stop SMUD.

Today SMUD’s average rates are 35 percent lower than what PG&E charges. Only a handful of utilities have lower rates than SMUD in California — Roseville Electric and Turlock Irrigation District. That difference is slight.

The gap between SMUD and other local, publicly owned utilities compared to PG&E continues to grow as PG&E’s annual rate increases are significantly higher.

Based on a California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) analysis between 2002 and 2019 PG&E rates rose an average of 37 percent compared to the 19 percent the consumer price index rate rose. The data available for average local utilities for the 10-year period between 2008 and 2017 shows a 3.33 percent increase. While 20-year data was not available for all local utilities, based on SMUD only the increase in rates was less than 10 percent for the corresponding 20 year period or roughly a quarter of PG&E’s



To contact Dennis Wyatt, email