By Jay Boychuk and Lisa Oelke, hb Solar Canada

Parking lots are assets for those that charge for the spaces within them, or need them to attract customers or even employees. They serve one main purpose, to provide a place to leave cars, whether it is for an hour, or a day. What if that asset could be turned into a multi-purpose piece of land that not only provides parking, but generates additional cashflow, and helps the environment?  Parking lots can do a surprising thing, they can generate electricity, and not only that, its green energy.  Introducing solar covered parking can do just that.

Why would a parking lot operator want to be a producer of green energy? Large cities can have a tremendous amount of asphalt covered surfaces, some above 40% of their land mass.  Suburban areas don’t escape these large amounts of asphalt coverage either.  A lot of that density is roadways, with surface parking lots significantly adding to the total as well.  What does all this asphalt do to our environment if we just use it for parking cars?

When it comes to identifying the greatest challenge to meeting Green House Gas (GHG) reductions, transportation leads in Ontario as the single-largest emitting sector in the economy at 35%. In response to these statistics, the Ontario Government is encouraging drivers to switch to electric vehicles, (EV’s) by offering rebates of up to $14,000 with the purchase of an EV. Quebec and B.C. have similar statistics and have also offered incentives. The Electric Vehicle Chargers Ontario(EVCO) incentive serves to increase access to charging stations with funding to build a network of fast-charging EV stations in cities, along highways, at workplaces, apartments, condos, and public places across Ontario. These measures create demand for additional EV charging in locations where cars need
to park whether they be at shopping malls, near the office, universities and schools, close to the entertainment district or sports events.  These EV chargers are going to need energy, and why not a clean source?

How many of these new EVs will be coming to your parking lot?  That is going to depend on whether or not facilities for charging are made available.  With range anxiety being one of the largest reasons many people remain cautious about purchasing an EV, it will be enhancement of this technology, and the number of available charging stations that will change this thinking.  We’d all still be riding horses if there were only a handful of gas stations, or if it took a significant time to fuel an internal combustion vehicle.  Very few EVs are going to pull into gas station type infrastructure where the fastest chargers will top up an EV in 15 minutes while they wait. Idle time is something few drivers have a tolerance for, and I’d count 15 minutes buying a chocolate bar as idle time.  The EV charging infrastructure is rapidly changing, and most of the charging will occur where long term parking already happens. In these instances, the owner and the car are already there, and the owner has priorities other than waiting for his electric battery to charge.  While in a meeting, charge your car at the same time.  Visiting a friend in the hospital, you can charge your car.  Watching your favourite sports team from the 10th row (or the 50th), you can charge your car.  Soon, you will be able to charge your car, and check it on your smart phone if you want, all while doing something else.  These parking patrons are also going to be willing to pay for the convenience of this service.  If they have an EV and are in need of a charge to get to their next destination, they will pay for the parking spot, they will also pay for the electricity, and at a premium rate.  As the cost of electricity increases, solar carports will be producing energy at the same cost.  Your cost will be fixed, but your parking patrons will be willing to pay more just as they would to charge at home.   Not only will EV chargers become a necessity soon enough, they will add to your bottom line at an ever increasing rate based on historical energy cost trends.

EVs are driven by the necessity to reduce GHG emissions, and carports are a great source of power to charge these EVs.  How about other benefits of solar covered parking lots?  They can help the environment and provide a green image.  In 2008, the Environmental Protection Agency in the US completed a paper on the Urban Heat Island (UHI) affect 1.  One section of this paper was specifically on the advantages of adding cool pavements to reduce the effects of asphalt, and even aged concrete that can reach temperatures of 48 to 67oC on the surface during the summer.

The EPA paper provides a wonderful visual example of the extreme using a thermal camera in Arizona with both concrete and asphalt surfaces shown.

There are several ways to eliminate the UHI affect; using more reflective and porous surfaces, planting trees, and planning for lots to be shaded by other structures.  Other structures used to mean buildings, and in the South carports have existed for a long time.  But only one solution offers asphalt shading, and energy generation.  That solution is the solar carport.  Becoming ever popular in the US, in both Southern and Northern climates, there has been little adoption in Canada thus far.  Here it is still more common to see landscaping being required and added.  A study published in 2006, compared the effects of UHI with urban forestry and with solar carports2.  Solar PV was shown to reduce the surface temperature of asphalt over twice as much as mature tree cover.  A solar carport also provides this affect instantaneously after it is installed, not partially over several years as the shade trees grow.  Now that will help keep cars cool and reduce how long AC needs to be turned up to the max.  Trees also require space and water for growth.  Solar carports can be aligned to fit within existing parking footprints, and need very little water for maintenance over their lifetime. They can be designed to divert water to grey water systems and can be used for maintenance (or watering the landscaping on the perimeter).

Looking beyond UHI affects, and to everyone’s favourite season, winter.  Has your parking lot ever been covered in snow and everyone parked there has to spend vast amounts of time clearing ice and snow from their vehicles?  Solar carports help mitigate this as well.  With cars under the cover of the solar, they will see very little snow and other elements as well.  This will virtually eliminate the need to prop up wipers, or dirty new jackets trying to reach the snow on the top of trucks and minivans.

To summarize, solar carports have many uses.  They offer:

  • Good CPTED lighting practices for enhanced safety
  • Conservation of water, reclaimed for other uses
  • Reduced emissions from ICE vehicles
  • Enhanced winter time safety on the roads by reducing flying snow
  • Covered premium parking as an added revenue stream
  • Provision of clean power, another revenue source
  • Green energy from overhead can power current and future electric vehicle demand
  • Can be coupled with energy storage to provide independent energy

Cleaner energy choices affect everyone, and the cost of producing renewable energy is closing in on conventional sources.  It has also become a hot topic with different levels of government.   In 2009, Ontario committed to closing coal fired plants, high emitters of airborne pollutants. At the time 19 Coal boiler plants contributed nearly one quarter of the Provinces energy. Weaning economies off coal, is no small feat. In 2003, Ontario generated 7,500 megawatts of coal-fired electricity which represented 18.6 million metric tons of dirty fuel. Coal-fired power plants were Ontario’s largest source of toxic chemical, heavy metal, sulfur, and nitrogen air pollution. By 2007, Carbon emissions from coal-fired generation had risen to more than 41 million metric tons annually.

In Ontario, the Provincial government introduced the Green Energy and Economy Act in 2009. 17 new natural gas-fired generating stations were built with 10,000 megawatts of capacity, and in addition to solar, wind and biomass, they replaced the generating capacity that coal previously provided.

Alberta is just starting to get involved with renewables as well.  Alberta has over 13,898 megawatts (MW) of installed electricity generation capacity with approximately 41% derived from coal and almost 40% from natural gas. The Alberta Climate Leadership Plan aims to improve air quality by phasing out coal power emissions by 2030.  To do so, renewables like solar will be a big part of the plan.

In 2016, the Federal Government announced that by 2025, 100% of electricity used in their buildings and operations will be from renewable energy sources. This objective supports a target of reducing the greenhouse gas emissions by 40%. Over 70 cities across the globe have set similar targets to achieve 100 percent clean energy, with commitments to cut a billion tons of greenhouse gases by 2030.

As a parking lot asset owner, if you think that creating an extra revenue stream from generating energy, supporting the goals that have spread across the country (and the world) for reducing GHG emissions, and getting the benefit of a nicer parking environment fits within your institution’s goals, consider adding solar carports.  To provide flexibility in design, you’ll find that the solar carport comes in many configurations.  There are ones for single deep parking stalls, two deep, and also very large span systems.  They come as single posts that can be located at the front of a stall or in a median, a merged two post and base at the front of a parking stall, two post systems with one at the front and one at the rear of the stall, and large span systems are specifically designed for the layout of each parking lot.

There are several carport systems available in North America however few are designed for northern snow loads. When choosing a solar carport provider, ensure their systems are designed to suit your needs and local parking regulations. Chose a style that offer drivers ease of getting in to and out of their vehicles for the best parking experience, and to keep them returning to your parking facility.

The collision of solar with parking is poised to change the future, as cities, industry and the general public work to identify an appropriate pathway forward to reducing GHG levels. They’ll do it while driving around in their EVs looking for a parking spot.  What better way is there to do it than to taking a parking asset currently with one use, and turn it into a green energy generator. ν

1. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. 2012. Reducing urban heat islands: Compendium of strategies. Draft. https://www.epa.gov/heat-islands/heat-island-compendium

2. Golden, J.S., J. Carlson, K. Kaloush, and P. Phelan. 2006. A Comparative Study of the Thermal and Radiative Impacts of Photovoltaic Canopies on Pavement Surface Temperatures. Solar Energy. 81(7): 872-883. July 2007. 

 

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