With solar gardens expanding, are solar parking lots on the horizon?

January 28, 2015 , excerpt cross-posted from The Washington Post.  See August 2016 Bloomberg article further down.

With solar gardens expanding, are ready areas of paved spaces — PV-covered parking lots — on the horizon?

One vast solar carport installation at Rutgers University is 28 acres in size and produces 8 megawatts of power, or about enough energy to power 1,000 homes.

Solar carports have many benefits, ranging from aesthetics (yes, the things look very cool) to subtler factors. Like this: Not having to return to a hot car after spending three hours at the mall or a sporting event in the summer. In fact, according to the Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Energy, being able to park in the shade in the summer is actually a substantial contributor to increased vehicle fuel efficiency, because it saves having to cool your car back up by cranking the air conditioner.

Cost is the problem.  “It’s the most expensive type of system to build,” says Chase Weir of TruSolar, which rates solar projects based on financial riskiness. “A lot more engineering, a whole lot more steel, more labor, and therefore, it’s a relatively small percentage [of solar power]…but it is growing, and the cost to install a solar canopy today is less than the cost to install a rooftop just a few years ago.”  Still, there aren’t all that many right now. According to Scott Moskowitz of GTM Research, which released astudy of the sector last year, by the end of 2014 there were an estimated 600 megawatts (or 2.5 billion dollars) worth of solar canopies installed in the U.S. In energy terms, though, 600 megawatts isn’t a very big number. Just consider: The Hoover Dam has a capacity of more than 2,000 megawatts, the world’s biggest coal plant is close to 6,000 megawatts, and even the world’s largest solar plant is 550 megawatts.

Munich RE, Dow Jones & Co., and Staples, among others.

They’ve also been used to adorn hotels, such as one just unveiled at the Phoenician, a luxury hotel in Scotsdale, Arizona:

And then there are other large-scale installers: One of the best known solar carports is at the Washington Redskins’ FedEx Field, where a gigantic solar array covering 841 parking spaces is able to generate enough power to cover “20 percent of the stadium’s power needs on game days and all of its power on non-game days,” according to Clark Construction, which installed it.

Laurence Mackler, who founded the solar carport installer Solaire Generation, says his company has now installed 50 megawatts worth of carports nationwide and has seen costs steadily decline over time. But he also emphasizes that there’s still a financial problem — one that has limited the growth of solar carports significantly.

“Everyone says to me, that’s a great idea, why doesn’t everyone do it,” says Mackler of solar carports. “And I have to say, well, because the economics work in certain states.”

That conclusion was reaffirmed by a 2014 market research report on solar carports by GTM Research, which found that they are mainly springing up in Arizona, New Jersey, Maryland, Massachusetts, and New York and most of all California, which is more than half of the total market. For the most part, the report notes, that’s because these states offer an array of state financial incentives to support their development.

Here’s a figure demonstrating as much from GTM Research:

“Because carport projects are more expensive, they have a generally higher reliance on state level incentives,” says report co-author Scott Moskowitz, a solar analyst with GTM Research. “So the markets in which those exist, there is going to be a higher concentration of carports.”

Clearly, the most important state is California, where according to GTM Research, solar carports have been supported both by the California Solar Initiative and also by the Division of the State Architect, which oversees construction on many public buildings. Moskowitz says that as costs of installation continue to decline, he does expect the solar carport market to expand into other states, too.

Here are his projections for growth through 2018:

So in sum: Putting solar atop pavements, with cooled down cars sandwiched in between, sounds like an energy no brainer. Maybe in the future, it’ll also be a financial one.

From Bloomberg Markets

It’s like rooftop solar, without the rooftops.

A growing number of consumers are buying into community solar farms that allow renters and apartment dwellers to access renewable energy produced on neighborhood plots that can be small enough to host a little league baseball game. Some are so modest they’re referred to as “solar gardens.”

Conventional solar farms such as Berkshire Hathaway Inc.’s 550-megawatt Topaz plant in California can spread over hundreds or thousands of acres. They sell their electricity mainly to utilities through long-term contracts. Rooftop panels, meanwhile, are mainly available for private homes, and can only work on about 30 percent of U.S. houses. Community farms offer a middle road.
“Everyone with an interest in solar can now participate,” said Eran Mahrer, director of utilities for Tempe, Arizona-based First Solar Inc., the biggest U.S. panel maker. “That’s particularly true in high urban densities. The market’s clearly accelerating.”

Community-Owned

Under the community farm option, consumers who buy into a project don’t directly use the energy produced. That’s sold directly to a local utility. Instead, their electric bills are reduced, based on how much the utility buys from the farm. In most states the arrangement is governed by the same regulations that require utilities to buy solar power from rooftop systems at retail rates.

Community solar farms are already permitted in 14 states, with about 100 megawatts in operation, enough to power about 30,000 homes. That includes California, the biggest solar state, and New York, which is planning a major overhaul of its energy policies.

Over the next five years, the amount of power available may rise to about 1.8 gigawatts as more states encourage development and individuals take advantage of federal incentives, according to the Washington-based Solar Energy Industries Association. The U.S. Energy Department announced last month it would provide $287 million to help finance 280 megawatts of solar projects in low- and moderate-income communities.

Ballpark-Sized 

In Rockford, Minnesota, one of the first of these projects supplies 32.5-kilowatts to about a dozen homes and an office building from panels stretched out on a hilly, ballpark-sized field. In Freetown, Massachusetts, a 1.1-megawatt plant built last year by Princeton, New Jersey-based NRG Energy Inc., provides power to about 160 homes from an 8-acre plot.

New York State Electric & Gas Corp. has agreed to buy power from the state’s first community solar project, which began construction in April and is designed to provide 582 kilowatts to 100 consumers who live in or near the city of Troy. Over two decades, a local resident may be able to save more than $31,000 on their electric bills, according to the developer, Clean Energy Collective LLC. As an incentive, the group is donating 10 kilowatts of panels to five low-income families.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has said that community solar will help the state meet a goal of getting half of its electricity from renewable energy by 2030, and this month offered $16 million to encourage development.

At a meeting last month of state utility regulators in Nashville, Tennessee, a series of panel discussions on community solar initiatives drew standing-room-only crowds, according to Hannah Masterjohn, director of new markets at Louisville, Colorado-based Clean Energy Collective.

Regulators Interested

“It was crazy,” Masterjohn said in a telephone interview. “Regulators have become very interested in community solar. I think it will grow as big as rooftop in half the time.”

There are some differences from rooftop power. People who sign solar leases — the majority of the residential market — become customers of the lease companies. With community solar, they continue to buy power from their local providers, and the utility doesn’t lose them as customers.

Also, community projects use the grid to deliver power, and help pay for maintaining the utilities’ infrastructure. That makes them less of a threat to traditional power companies, which are losing revenue to solar leasing providers.

“Utilities see community solar as a bit more friendly,” said Drew Warshaw, vice president of community solar at NRG Energy. “By definition we have to use their transmission and distribution system, we pay for any upgrades needed and they continue to have a relationship with the customer.”

Utilities Watching

Still, utilities are closely watching how this initiative plays out, mainly related to lost revenue, according to Chief Executive Officer Jim Torgerson of Avangrid Inc., which owns utilities in New York and New England.  “Shared solar has much better economies of scale than rooftop but net metering issues really have to get resolved,” he said in a phone interview. “We think it’s worth the wholesale price of power, not the retail rate.”

Michael Maravelias, a sales manager for Airgas Refrigerants in Massachusetts, is concerned about climate change and wanted to do his part to reduce consumption of fossil fuels, but the roof on his home is already 15 years old and would need to be replaced long before the panels. He also had concerns that installing a system could damage his home, or that firefighters may hesitate if they saw a system on his roof.
Last year, Maravelias contracted to buy power from an NRG solar farm about 40 miles (64 kilometers) from his home in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Now his monthly power bill is about 15 percent cheaper.
“I didn’t want anyone drilling holes in my roof,” Maravelias said by phone. “Plus they look ugly and could be a fire hazard. Now you just don’t need to install solar on your roof to get the benefits.”