Reason #1: Carports Keep It Local
I’m not the only one who thinks community solar should be locally sited, on the distribution grid. Recent market research from SEPA and the Shelton Group suggests that most people who want community solar would like it to be sited locally—ideally within a short drive from where they live. Yes, there are some market segments that focus on price above all, but large segments say they would be willing to pay a small premium in order to keep community solar local.
The problem is, urban and suburban communities often have few good sites for ground-mounted solar projects. One of our Utility Forum members, Palo Alto Utilities, which is located in a community that is famous for its trees and its high property values, is a prime example. Palo Alto has not yet finalized plans for community solar, but it has already launched a carport-focused solar incentive. We anticipate that many communities—and especially those with sustainability goals—will demonstrate new ways to finance carport-based community solar, to keep participant costs acceptable.
Reason #2: Lower Solar Costs Make More Room for Improvements
A study from GTM Research in 2014 predicted a price premium ($/Wdc) for solar carports of 60 to 80 cents through 2018. CSVP has documented current premiums in the range of 45 to 60 cents in the West for relatively standard carport designs. Design innovations, improved installation procedures, and economies of scale as the industry grows can make a difference—but only up to a point. Most solar canopies use steel, at a relatively fixed cost.
But look at it this way: As PV costs decline, project sponsors can afford more of the add-ons that were beyond practical consideration a few years ago. A solar carport today is in same price range as a basic rooftop-solar project was in 2013.
Reason #3: Communities Want Green Parking
The U.S. Green Building Council now has a program called ParkSmart, which is gaining popularity in cities nationwide. This program has documented lots of ways in which solar carports improve community sustainability, from reducing the need for gas-fueled car air conditioning, to protecting night skies while supporting efficient lighting options, to reducing heat-island effects. Indeed, studies have documented that solar panels reduce heat island effects, relative to bare asphalt, by as much as two-thirds.
Reason #4: Community-Solar Carports Are Good For Business
A number of community solar projects have brought so-called anchor customers together with other participants in the community, to solve solar siting problems and increase economies of scale for community solar. Parking lots for retail shopping might be great anchor sites for community solar, where the business stakeholders take on a little more of the full project cost in order to benefit accordingly from the chance to offer their customers much-wanted shade. PowerParasol has cited research from the University of Arizona, indicating that shoppers will spend more time in stores (and spend more money), if their cars can be parked in shade.
Power Parasol also has demonstrated the value of solar in shading not only cars, but mingling people, as they participate in farmer’s markets, public performances, and outdoor events of all kinds.
Dan Ciarcia provided a compelling case for solar carports in cold climates, too. For example, one Honda dealership documented savings on snow plowing and sending sales staff to constantly move vehicles—adding up to a full week of worker’s pay for every snow storm. That’s not to speak of the extra advantage of being able to show more cars year-round.
Reason #4: An Invitation for School-Based Community-Solar Projects
One of the biggest markets for solar carports today is at schools. The buildings are hard to retrofit—especially in California and other places requiring architectural reviews. While some school districts are already obtaining carport solar from third parties, others are looking for solutions in partnership with utilities and whole communities. We’ve heard of at least one case where a utility considered treating the school as the anchor customer for a community solar project that would also offer shares to households in the community.
Reason #5: A Glimpse of the EV Future
Every electric utility should be preparing for an increase in electric vehicles. That includes early preparations for car-charging programs that contribute both energy sales and renewables-integration value. The Green Car Congress reported a recent study from Navigant, indicating that the EV market is growing at 60% year-over-year in North America. Of course, total market size is still small, and most utilities are not ready to go full bore into EVs. But a community-solar program that includes a carport-based charging demonstration is a great lead-in for talking about EVs with internal utility staff, local officials and customers.
A carport-based community solar program can keep the original concept of community solar as a test bed for new ideas alive and exciting. Most projects eventually would pay for themselves through energy benefits, but some carefully planned projects could pay for themselves sooner, through subsidization by anchor customers or even by charging a little bit every day for that prized parking spot in the shade.
Based on my experience, I advise utilities to take build a diverse portfolio of local community solar resources. This allows the resource base to grow with customer demand, and it gives utilities a chance to evaluate the real costs and benefits of alternative strategies.
A paper discussed in our July blog, on taking a new approach to solar value, includes a detailed discussion of how adding a few MW of carport solar to a larger community-solar portfolio can be achieved at no extra cost. (It also outlines a strategy that would work for many utilities in the West, utilizing flat-roofed solar carports that are cheaper to site and build, and which offer greater solar production on peak summer days.) In addition, we will be adding more resources on solar carports and other strategic solar designs to our website this fall.