Greenfield development, either through utility-scale solar or smaller commercial solar arrays on properties of vacant farmland, schoolyard fields, and wastewater treatment facilities has grown rapidly, earning solar the nickname of the “new row crop.” Solar’s growth has provided new income for landowners, has led to the creation of an industry that now employs over 250,000 people in the U.S., and is critical for reducing our reliance on fossil fuels.
Despite the positive economic, social, and environmental benefits of solar energy, arguments against the use of any ground-mounted solar, that it will harm ecosystems or reduce the amount of available farmland, are still being made. Some are concerned that allowing solar on agricultural land will encourage an overproduction of energy and underproduction of food. Others, including many landowners, see solar as a way to hold on to family-owned land by securing long-term, consistent revenue through a land lease instead of uncertain income based on crop yields. Not to mention, solar supports pollinator-friendly habitats, which show that 95% of the vegetation around a solar farm can be preserved.
Still, concerns over land use and solar are surfacing in new markets like Illinois, where legislation has been introduced to require Agricultural Impact Mitigation Agreements (AIMA) for all solar projects above 500kW. These requirements already exist for wind projects in the state, but wind projects have to be on open land, while solar projects don’t need to be and are require less space. We’ll see how this one plays out in the coming months.
Pushback against ground-mounted solar is nothing new for the industry. Sol Systems has previously analyzed the various conflicts over land use and solar development, including the rise of Certificate of Public Convenience & Necessity (CPCN) requirements in Maryland and limits to ground-mounted solar in New York. More recently, the SMART program in Massachusetts has discouraged ground-mounted solar through a greenfield subtractor for ground-mounted projects. The program has also encouraged alternative forms of solar projects through adders for rooftop, carport, and even floating solar.
Carports: Turning Existing Space into a Solar Power Plant
While land use will continue to be an issue for the solar industry in ground-mounted projects, advances in solar canopy, or carport, technology has created opportunities to avoid the conversation on land use altogether. Parking lot owners can add a canopy covered with solar panels to their lot, providing shade and snow or rain cover for parking users. Additionally, carports allow a property owner to maximize the value of space that is currently set aside for parking without losing the area’s existing functionality.
While an appealing option, especially for those concerned about greenfield development, carports are expensive, as they require additional steel structuring. Still, states can encourage carport incentives to balance land use concerns in the design of their solar programs. One of the best incentive landscapes for carports has been in Massachusetts, where carports have been explicitly incentivized through a $0.06 tariff adder. Though Massachusetts may not be the cheapest place to build carports given the need to withstand significant snow loads, the SMART carport incentive shows the Department of Energy Resources’ (DOER) continued commitment to encouraging the use of carports; they also provided an extra incentive for carports under SREC II, their preceding incentive regime.
Designing a Good-Looking Carport to Fit a Customer’s Needs
Even when you set aside the additional costs of a carport, many potential solar carport customers have raised questions about the aesthetics and operational impact of carports. Fortunately, there are many ways for a solar developer to fit the carport project to the needs of the site and customer. For Class A real estate buildings, aesthetics are always a priority. Aesthetic customization for carports includes decking on the underside of the carport to display a company’s logo, custom column colors, and premium finishes like powder-coating on the columns. While these premium carport features come at a higher price, they are a great way for Class A real estate properties to go solar while maintaining their aesthetic standards and offering tenants parking amenities like shade, snow protection, and LED lighting at night.
Carports: Operational Concerns
On the operational side, most property owners have questions about snow removal, re-paving the parking lot, and maintaining the number of parking spaces. In Massachusetts, there are a few ways to handle snow-related challenges, including a snow guard and dual-tilt or “y-shaped” canopies. With a guard, any snow that lands on the carport will remain there until it melts, and the guard prevents it from falling onto the parking lot in a sheet. A dual-tilt canopy allows the snow to collect in the middle of the canopy, where it can melt. Sol Systems has used dual-tilt canopies at our recently-completed project at UMass Amherst (pictured here). For customers who are concerned about water management, the carport can also be equipped with gaskets to divert any snowmelt from the canopies.
What Happens if I Need to Re-pave My Parking Lot?
When customers ask about repaving their lots, they are often concerned that canopies will preclude them from repaving or that the process will be more onerous once canopies are installed. The experience from our engineering and delivery team has been that the parking surface can be replaced once carports are installed because carport clearances can allow large vehicles to pass underneath. Plus, if the lot is resurfaced after the installation, the parking lot will be the most aesthetically-pleasing with brand new carports and a freshly-paved surface.
Finally, though many customers are concerned about losing parking spots to a carport project, carport projects maintain parking capacity, rather than decreasing it. Carports are installed in line with the existing parking rows, and columns are placed similarly to a lamppost, so they don’t preclude cars from parking in a spot.
Overall, though carports are sometimes viewed as a hassle, they are a great way to increase utility in an area that property owners may not have previously considered. Have a parking lot you’re interested in leasing? Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This is an excerpt from the February 2018 edition of The SOL SOURCE, a monthly electronic newsletter analyzing the latest trends in renewable energy based on our unique position in the solar industry. To receive future editions of the journal, please subscribe.
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Sol Systems, a national solar finance and development firm, delivers sophisticated, customized services for institutional, corporate, and municipal customers. Sol is employee-owned, and has been profitable since inception in 2008. Sol is backed by Sempra Energy, a $25+ billion energy company.
Over the last nine years, Sol Systems has delivered 650MW of solar projects for Fortune 100 companies, municipalities, universities, churches, and small businesses. Sol now manages over $650 million in solar energy assets for utilities, banks, and Fortune 500 companies.
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