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The Parking Lot as a ‘Solar Grove’

One day early in 2004, Robert Noble, an architect specializing in sustainable design, asked himself why parking lots in the United States weren’t covered in solar panels and used to generate clean energy. A few firms had been building carports with solar panels for some time, but none had acquired a major presence or branched out much beyond the residential market. “Parking lots are this wasteland – they’re the last thing that gets attention,” Mr. Noble said in an interview. “Here’s a market the size of Alpha Centauri that’s never been tapped.”

In 2005, Mr. Noble founded Envision Solar, now the country’s leading developer of solar carports. The company’s signature product is “solar groves,” 1,000-square-foot canopies that shade parking lots while generating clean power from an array of photovoltaic panels. One early adopter was the Kyocera Corporation of Japan, which tasked Envision Solar with the construction of its first large-scale “solar grove” in 2006 at its United States headquarters in San Diego, where a 235-kilowatt carport harnesses 1,400 of Kyocera’s own solar photovoltaic modules.

Other major installations soon followed at Dell Computer’s headquarters in Round Rock, Tex.; at the Horsham, Pa., headquarters of Centocor, a Johnson & Johnson subsidiary; and at the University of California at San Diego.

The company is now branching out into electric car generation by outfitting its solar canopies with charging stations for plug-in hybrids and electric vehicles. It has developed a pilot project with the Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Lab in Golden, Colo., while also working with Coulomb Technologies, a developer of electric vehicle charging stations. Solar canopies may be a good fit for electric car manufacturers, which have faced the criticism that even while they reduce the consumption of oil, they require their own large increase in electric power generation. Without a major increase in renewable power infrastructure, that energy will come from conventional emissions-intensive sources like coal.

At the same time, large utility-scale solar projects, which tend to be situated in remote desert areas, continue to spawn land-use disputes with conservationists. Converting the desert of concrete parking lots into small-scale solar power plants effectively sidesteps both problems, Mr. Noble argues. He concedes that simple inertia and the vast amount of existing infrastructure that would need to be converted means that large-scale deployment of solar parking canopies (with automotive charging stations, of course) is still years or even decades away. Nonetheless, he asserts that eventually – perhaps in 20 years’ time – there will be a “hyper-convergence” of transportation, energy and infrastructure in which distributed solar will play a major role. “The distance between a new idea and full market acceptance is a very long trip,” he said.
By JOHN COLLINS RUDOLF, July 6, 2010