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How can solar canopies help us electrify our industry?

May 09, 2022

By Alex Spiva and Rachel Bannon-Godfrey

Utilizing developed land to generate renewable energy and help our businesses and communities meet environmental goals

In recent years, solar energy has become an increasing source of large-scale renewable energy production. And as many governments and industries around the world transition their power supply to renewables, developers are looking to transform large swaths of land into solar farms. Undeveloped land, agricultural land, and mature forests have been a common target for solar farms. A rapid expansion of clean energy generation is essential to meeting a carbon neutral future, however it must be achieved  in a way that does not have unintended consequences for the ecosystems on that land.

An obvious but largely untapped long-term solution includes the installation of solar canopies above existing or newly constructed parking lots. The technology is the same—cells containing doped semiconductor materials efficiently convert sunlight into electricity that can be used to power nearby buildings and communities—but with less environmental impact. The solar PVs are mounted and effectively used as shade structures with enough clearance underneath for people to walk and cars to park. When installed over existing conventional surface parking lots, this approach has the added benefit of reducing urban heat islands, while generating clean energy and providing weather protection for people using the outdoor space.

Solar canopies offer a stack of benefits, such as making use of land that is already developed, shading outdoor space, and helping governments and industries meet their environmental goals. This article explores the many benefits that solar canopies can bring and why industry leaders should adopt this approach to the energy transition.

The potential for parking lot solar canopies is all around us—at airports, shopping malls, office buildings, and grocery stores.

Making use of cleared land

Building renewable power sources quickly is critical to the energy transition. Solar arrays are typically built on open spaces like grasslands rather than in developed areas because it is less costly per kilowatt output to build on undeveloped land than on parking lots. Solar developers also find it easier to manage a few large solar farms in an open landscape than dozens of small facilities scattered across urban areas.

In the United States, 51% of utility-scale solar facilities are situated in desert climates, 33% are on croplands, and 10% are in grasslands and forests. Although this paints an encouraging picture for the future of increasing clean energy generation, siting solar facilities on undeveloped land is not always the best solution. Our undeveloped land is quickly diminishing, and we need a lot of it to deliver a host of other services like, protecting wildlife and habitats, sequestering carbon, growing food, storing water, and more.

According to research conducted by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, pavement makes up from 35% to 50% of the total surface area of an average city. Parking lots make up about half of that pavement. Yet only 2.5% of US solar power comes from those urban areas. You can begin to see that there are plenty of opportunities for solar power production in our cities.

Parking lots are plentiful, close to suburbs and city centers, and on land that has already been stripped of much of its natural value. Think of the parking areas associated with shopping malls, airport terminals, large chain grocery stores, and office complexes. If we can work to develop solar canopies at these locations, we can reduce our reliance on more carbon-intensive forms of energy.

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Solar farms have emerged as a popular and efficient form of renewable energy that will help us meet our energy transition goals.

Electrifying the industry

Building solar canopies on large urban parking lots will help companies offset a portion of the energy their building needs to operate. Energy is harnessed from the sun through solar panels and converted into a form of energy compatible with the local electric utilities. The energy generated from solar panels mounted on a building rooftop and/or solar canopy is fed into the grid at the same location. Typically, a building utilizes net metering to receive credits for returning solar energy to the grid.  A building also has the option to install on-site battery storage to better manage periods of peak demand, provide a more resilient and continuous power supply, and improve the return on investment of the solar installation.

By installing solar canopies, parking lots could transform from being a cause of urban heat islands to a source of clean, sustainable power. The Yale School of the Environment estimates that Walmart parking lots alone could provide “11.1 gigawatts of solar power.” That’s almost enough to power two million homes! More renewable energy sources in local communities will accelerate our transition to carbon-neutral, especially while governments, industry, and homes begin to focus on electrifying their systems.

Companies can take it one step further and provide electric vehicle (EV) charging stations integrated into solar canopies for customer and fleet use, which reflects the relationship between driving electric and the benefits of solar canopies. Quite literally, we can be driving on solar power. 

Shading vehicles

In addition to providing power, solar canopies provide weather protection for customers and employees. This includes shading cars in summer and sheltering them from snowfall in winter. The benefits go beyond individual cars, as solar canopies also shade pavement areas, reducing the risk of urban heat islands whereby dark materials absorb heat and raise temperatures in urban areas.

With solar canopies, vehicles are protected from direct contact with the sun’s rays on hot, sunny days. This helps the car interior stay cool while parked,  reducing air conditioning needs and fuel consumption once occupants return to their vehicles, resulting in lower emissions and cost savings. Conversely, on days when it is raining or snowing, the canopies can help protect vehicles and people from the elements.

While shading or shielding vehicles from the weather are not the primary objectives of solar canopies on parking lots, they are some convenient benefits we can all appreciate.

Solar canopies offer a stack of benefits, such as making use of land that is already developed, shading outdoor space, and helping governments and industries meet their environmental goals.

Helping business meet their environment goals

Many of the companies with the most ambitious sustainability goals also own or lease large facilities with vast parking areas, making them ideal candidates for cost effective solar canopies. If they understand that solar canopies could not only help them reduce power costs but also improve their social license to operate, it should be an enticing option. Let’s look at some examples below.

Costco’s climate action plan includes installing on-site renewables. Target says that by 2030, 100% of their purchased electricity will be renewable. Retail giant Aldi has pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 26% by 2025 through renewable energy. Many of these stores, including Costco and Aldi, are already using solar panels at their distribution centers. Consider the size of the parking area supporting a typical big-box retail store, and the potential energy generation if it was covered by solar canopies?

By adding solar canopies into their real estate assets, these businesses could leverage their existing parking infrastructure to accelerate towards meeting their sustainability goals.

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In addition to providing power, solar canopies provide weather protection for customers and employees.

A bright approach to the energy transition

Solar farms have emerged as a popular and efficient form of renewable energy that will help us meet our energy transition goals. But a portion of them are starting to encroach on undeveloped land. Placing solar canopies on large parking lots is an alternative solution to increasing the percentage of clean energy powering nearby buildings and communities while maintaining vital ecosystems and habitats. Solar canopies take advantage of land that is already developed, reduce urban heat island effects of surface parking lots, generate clean energy, and can help corporations, utilities, and communities meet their environmental goals.

The potential for parking lot solar canopies is all around us—at airports, shopping malls, office buildings, grocery stores. So, let’s take a deeper look at how to add innovation and efficiency to the infrastructure we already have within our built environment before developing elsewhere.

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  • Alex Spiva

    Based in Portland, Maine, Alex is an electrical project engineer. He’s passionate about working collaboratively and has a particular interest in the positive impact that the energy transition can have on communities.

    Contact Alex
  • Rachel Bannon-Godfrey

    As part of the Corporate Sustainability team, Rachel leads our global social and environmental sustainability integration. Applying the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal framework, she helps our global experts become leaders in climate solutions.

    Contact Rachel
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