Solar canopies installed over parking in the Netherlands
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Make it happen

The enormous potential of solar canopies

Steve Hansen
August 23, 2023

The U.S. has a couple billion parking spaces, give or take a million or two. Many of them are not even used that often, but minimum parking requirements and the need for holiday and Black Friday parking demand their creation nonetheless. What do you suppose would happen if some of those parking spaces received an “upgrade” with a solar canopy? I think they would instantly become a lot more useful and beneficial.

If you’re not familiar with solar canopies, that’s not surprising. They’re not yet ubiquitous, but are gradually cropping up all over the world. A solar canopy is simply a structure that uses solar panels to generate electricity while it also creates shade for your parked car.

The Potential Is Enormous

Where do solar canopies belong? They are appropriate for both commercial and residential spaces—anyplace that would benefit from more shade and more electricity. On the commercial side, consider that Walmart has more than 4600 stores and Home Depot has more than 2300 stores in the United States alone, and the huge potential scale of solar canopies in those sprawling parking lots starts to become apparent. Add to that all the grocery stores, shopping malls, schools, hotels, airports, and office parks around the country and you might surmise that we could generate a massive amount of (mostly) carbon-free electricity on land that’s already developed and already on the electric grid.

There’s a huge environmental benefit, and that’s a key point. Solar and wind farms are typically located on undeveloped land that often needs a new grid connection. That grid connection adds to the project cost, as does all the site development and transportation for the construction crews.

Site development for 50 solar canopies at a big-box store or a grocery store, for example, will be quite different from developing raw land 30 miles outside of a metropolitan area. The contractor will be cutting a lot of asphalt parking lot to pour footings and run heavy electrical cables, but the environmental damage on that site has already been done during the original construction. At that point, getting a substantial amount of clean energy out of the site is a huge benefit. It’s just getting some payback.

Solar canopies also belong at your home, whether in place of or in addition to rooftop solar. It just depends on your situation. You might have both, in fact, depending on your goals.

Why Solar Canopies Are Better Than Rooftop Solar—Sometimes

Rooftop solar definitely has its place, especially on buildings that aren’t located near large shade trees. Where shade trees exist, I would want to preserve them and their multiple benefits rather than removing them for rooftop solar.

If your site doesn’t have shade trees that would block the sun, then building a canopy is a judgment call. You might be better off just using that empty roof for your panels rather than consuming resources to build infrastructure–a canopy–that you don’t really have to build.

Multiple Benefits—and No Downside?

Solar canopies have no downside that I can see. One challenge, of course, will be the upfront cost, and you can get some help with that! The Inflation Reduction Act will give you a 30% tax credit for your solar panels. This is not a tax-advisory post, but you can explore options here. Can you imagine having 30% of your solar panels, heat pump, and battery backup system paid for with tax credits? And you will be saving a colossal amount of energy in the next decades, and therefore money too? And your battery backup will protect you from power outages for as long as you’re in that house. These are massive benefits to your family day to day, as well as all that infrastructure being assets tied to your property. It makes your home more valuable and makes you more secure, as well.

But those are for home-based systems, and solar canopies add value just about anywhere. For the driver/shopper at the grocery or big-box store that has added solar canopies, they enjoy a covered parking space that keeps their car cooler in the hot and sunny months. At other times of the year, that covered parking space gives shoppers a break from the rain and snow to load their vehicles, get kids strapped into strollers, and that sort of thing. A parking lot full of solar canopies is a customer-friendly choice and demonstrates a company’s commitment to more than just profits.

For the retailer, solar canopies can be a competitive advantage, especially if they choose to add electric vehicle charging. EV charging doesn’t have to be combined with solar canopies, but the combined investment makes sense. If a retailer can offer customers market-rate charging while they shop, and let them know that it’s solar powered from the canopy overhead, that retailer has a winning message.

Solar canopies can also generate a substantial amount of power and thus offset the electricity that the retailer needs to buy from the electric company. For retailers with massive profits, no doubt that cost is just part of doing business. But they also get a bit of green credibility as well as customer satisfaction.

According to this article, Rutgers University built an 8-megawatt solar parking facility on 32 acres. That makes it one of the largest such projects in the U.S. One megawatt is capable of powering 400–900 homes, depending on where those homes are located, so these projects contribute substantially to our national electricity supply.

For the electric grid and utility companies, solar canopies are one more source of clean energy that could help them avoid blackouts during heatwaves and cold spells. Diversification means energy resilience.

Finally, for local contractors in the business of building and connecting solar canopies, they get a steady stream of profitable work. And of course those contractors will be inclined to shop at the businesses that have provided them with work in building those solar canopies.

With Solar Canopies, Everyone Wins

Retail shopping isn’t going away, but perhaps we can do something better with all those parking spaces. Productive re-use with solar canopies can turn wasted, over-built space into clean energy that benefits all of us.

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