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Why aren’t all car parks covered with solar panels?

Students and hookers commuting to Michigan State University are somewhat relieved of the elements when they park their cars for class or a football game. Solar panels, large enough to park a motorhome underneath, stand on steel trusses above the pitch, providing some shelter and shade. Not only does the university get clean and cheap solar energyhis students have cooler cars in August and don’t have to spend time scratching their snow-free cars in 20-degree weather in January.

I know this because I parked under them for almost two years as a traveling student.

It seemed like such a useful system to me that it seems odd that every parking lot isn’t covered with solar panels. Every solar panel installation has a different calculation, whether it’s on a roof, on the ground or in a parking lot. Owners of large parking lots may not install solar power there for a number of reasons, including price and inconvenience. However, some solar experts think it’s possible that a renewed focus on sustainability could bring more solar parking panels in the years to come.

Read more: Best solar companies of 2022

The initial costs of solar

For many homeowners, installing solar panels will save them money in the long run. The same is true for large establishments.

The State of Michigan estimated that the parking signs (located on five lots) would save $10 million over 25 years. The university gets electricity from panels under a power purchase agreement, which means that he does not own the panels but agrees to buy the electricity. It saves money by obtaining electricity at a lower price than an alternative source.


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Although the economics of a power purchase agreement are a bit different, for the company absorbing the construction costs, building elsewhere would be a better deal.

“A carport costs about 40% more than a ground-mount system,” said Tim Powers, research and policy associate for Inovateus Solar, the company that built the state system. Michigan. It costs more due to additional materials (it takes taller and stronger structures to get solar panels this far off the ground), additional labor (takes longer to build), and building costs. additional engineering, he said.

If the only motivation is to get solar power at the cheapest possible price, carports are not the answer. But there are other reasons why an institution might adopt solar power in its parking lots.

Michigan State’s carports have won national and state awards and account for 5% of campus energy use – a step toward the university’s sustainability goals and a nice round of good publicity. Several people I interviewed for this story suggested that it could make college more attractive to incoming students, though it’s harder to find empirical evidence of a school’s sustainability impact on a student who chooses it.

Recent research suggests that while 65% of consumers (not necessarily students) said they were interested in buying sustainable or green products, only 26% did so. While buying habits and choosing college might seem like apples and oranges, carport solar panels and green consumerism might be a perfect match where you get your literal apples and oranges.

The rise of electric cars

The threat of climate change requires a rapid reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. While many problems require systemic solutions, individuals are embracing green technologies, such as rooftop solar panels and electric cars, at an accelerating rate. In addition to the ecological benefits, the two solar panels and electric vehicles are likely to save money over time. It is possible that stores with large parking lots can economically take advantage of both.

For example, a solar carport covering an average Walmart parking lot would have a capacity of about 3.1 megawatts, said Joshua Pearce, professor of electrical and computer engineering at Western University in London, Ont.

Pearce modeled the viability of solar carports in big-box stores, choosing Walmart for its ubiquity. The chain has also made public commitments to sustainability and is one of the leading companies by installed solar capacity. Walmart says it has 600 renewable energy installations on site, but did not share information about any solar parking canopies planned or installed. He is said to have installed at least seven throughout California.

While it’s hard to say if anyone would opt for one retailer over another because of the environmental message of a large visible solar panel, would they do so if it meant parking out of the sun, snow or rain?

Pearce has a hunch they might, although his research hasn’t looked at that question directly. He thinks stores could attract even more customers by offering shoppers discounted or free electric vehicle charging.

An average Walmart parking lot could support about 100 electric vehicle chargers if covered in solar panels, according to Pearce’s research.

“I think if you have free parking under the awning that can charge your electric vehicle, you’ll spend a bit more time in the store because you’re going to be waiting for it to be charged,” he said. . “Even if you only buy one thing, it will be a net profit for the store.”

Pearce seeks to investigate this intuition in the near future by seeing what happens when the charge is actually supplied. Do non-electric vehicles park there? Are people spending more time in the store?

In a future with free electric charging at Walmart (or another big box store), shoppers could return home not just with their groceries, but with more charge in their vehicle than when they left. According to a study by Pearce and a colleague, 90% of Americans live within 15 miles of a Walmart, and a one-hour shopping trip could provide a car with a 20-mile charge.

A person plugs in an electric vehicle with solar panels in the background.

Solar panels and electric vehicle charging could be a useful couple.

SimonSkafar/Getty Images

“This means that for many shoppers with an electric vehicle, the trip to Walmart and back would potentially have no automobile-related energy costs,” the researchers wrote.

While a world in which stores charge their customers’ electric vehicles for free and make more money in the process sounds great, it’s still hypothetical at this point.

There are hurdles to overcome, especially when retrofitting an existing car park with a solar canopy. This involves closing off parts of the parking lot during construction, potentially making a store a more inconvenient choice, at least for a while.

Pearce echoed what Powers of Inovateus said: Considering only the cost of installation, it currently makes more sense to install on the roof of the store than a solar farm in the open.

“But then if I don’t want to take extra land, maybe I’m limited in land for some reason, then parking is the way to go,” Pearce said.

Potential change on the horizon

“We see the construction of carports in parking lots as a great dual purpose story,” said Tyler Kanczuzewski, vice president of sustainability at Inovateus. Dual use refers to the practice of using land for two things, for example, solar energy and growing crops.

According to a study published in Nature, large-scale solar in the United States is largely located outside of cities. Fifty-one percent are settled in deserts, 33% on agricultural land and 2.5% in urban areas.

Cars parked under a sun canopy.

Solar panels provide shade and electricity on a hot sunny day.

Bilanol/Getty Images

Land use decisions are often difficult. Putting solar in deserts raises cultural and ecological concerns. Rural solar farms have sparked debate. The Michigan State facility has kept 45 acres of farmland in production, a fact Michigan State has called out in promoting one of the many awards it has won for the network.

Parking lots, on the other hand, are primarily good for one thing – parking – and solar canopies arguably enhance that experience.

Will the growing interest in sustainability make solar parking lots more common in the future?

“It’s hard to project,” Kanczuzewski said. While more common in the Southwest, installing solar panels in parking lots isn’t very common in the Midwest, where Inovateus does most of its business. In terms of solar capacity, 95% of Inovateus installations are ground utility projects. By number of projects, 65% are on the ground, 30% are on the roof and about 5% (only three projects in total) are above parking lots.

“They’re not a very common option,” Powers said.

They could, however, be particularly durable.

“I think it’s super durable,” Kanczuzewski said. “Rather than taking new land or additional property, why not take an existing space and go solar?”

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