Solar Power Panels, Parking Structures, and the Urban Environment

Earlier this year, The Washington Post cited a report stating that 35-50 percent of a city’s surface is made up pavement. 40 percent of that pavement is used by parking lots. The asphalt and concrete on this pavement absorb the sun’s energy and retain heat, which contributes to higher temperatures in these urban areas. In peak summer times, the combined effect of these paved areas and the propensity to utilize more electric power to cool down create added stress to our faltering power grid. This urban problem hits home if you can recall the Rolling Blackouts that were ordered by the Independent System Operator (ISO) in California, turning off the lights in approximately 500,000 homes, including some in Beverly Hills. Or the constant flex alerts issued by the ISO, urging Californians to immediately conserve electricity and to shift demand to off-peak hours after 6 p.m. What’s an urbanite to do?

Enter the solar carport, a structure that creates shaded parking while producing solar electricity at a lower rate than the utility company. In a solar carport, form truly meets function. Despite added costs, solar car ports are aesthetically pleasing and can cool down large areas that are hit with direct sunlight. They can also power up (electric) cars under its canopy. What isn’t beautiful about a stylishly modern designed solar carport with a few Tesla Model S or Roadsters recharging under its canopy? As far as function, Solar Carports can generate a lot of power. For example, one vast solar carport installation at Rutgers University is 28 acres in size and produces 8 megawatts of power, about enough energy to power 1,000 homes. All this while adding virtually zero square footage to already scarce land resources. For densely populated urban areas, this is a definite plus.

Just like the rest of the solar industry, the solar carport business is growing by leaps and bounds. According to Solar Power World, the annual installed capacity of carports tripled from just shy of 50 MW in 2010 to 157 MW in 2013 and is expected to hit 318 MW in 2016. The growth is in line with the rest of the solar industry. And while solar canopies and carports are more expensive – the increased material, engineering and labor adding to the bottom line – they possess a distinct advantage over rooftop systems that drives their success: people can see them. For those people that are passionate about the environment, sustainability, and/or energy independence, green has an added and priceless value.

The carport market resides largely in the commercial, government and educational spaces. School parking lots outfitted with solar carports proved to be a boon for the business in 2012, providing nearly half of the projects, and in 2013, contributing 39%, according to GTM. California has been the main state for carport installations, followed by New Jersey and Arizona.

As the hot summer months approach, don’t despair if your local mall or favorite shopping spots haven’t installed one yet. According to the ISO, our power grid will benefit from solar power imports that will enable us to meet expected demand this year. No rolling blackouts expected. Thank you, Solar!

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