Do we want to blanket our countryside with solar? Clearwater Reserves, LLC isn’t going to fight with farmers for virgin land and a 30-year contract. There’s no need to thanks to acres of parking lots already in existence. Parking lots provide ample space for solar installations to power local businesses and these “solar canopies” also provide much-needed shade and weather relief for shoppers. It’s an ideal situation to produce energy close to where it’s needed for maximum efficient use. Many canopy designs exist, from hangar style to “solar trees”, and some make better use of space than others.
“I grew up on a farm,” said Dawn Johnston, CEO of Clearwater Reserves. “I love solar energy but prefer not to see the landscape covered with solar panels.” That’s why Johnston turned her attention to those areas that were already developed as possibilities for solar energy generation. The results surprised her, and parking lots are just one developed area possible for solar installations. Others include floating solar on utility ponds, brownfields and landfill areas deemed not suitable for citizen activity, and existing covered parking adjacent to rental units. With a solar installation atop a multi-story parking garage, all parking is “covered”, and the solar panels are only visible to passing aircraft.
Add to this one more advantage: charging station outlets for electric vehicles (EVs) located right in the Solar Park. Although the great majority of the power goes to the business itself via a power purchase agreement, businesses can elect to offer convenient EV charging as a means of drawing foot traffic while cars are charging up. According to Johnston, clients can determine the number of EV charging stations they deem appropriate within the parking lot installation. “They can have one for every parking space or a few per acre. It really doesn’t take up much additional space,” she said. A recent forecast by consultant group BGC projected that EVs will make up more than half of global light vehicle sales by 2035.
Improving the Customer Experience
Such convenient EV charging is a great way to draw foot traffic directly to businesses. In the time it takes to charge an EV, customers can browse their way to purchases and otherwise conduct their business. This may become a competitive edge. Customers can shop all they want, forget about range, and stop in regularly.
Further, solar canopies retrofitted over parking lots offer customers shelter from intense summer heat and precipitation. “It’s basically covered parking for all of your customers,” said Johnston. Along with small trees and optional pollinator habitat, solar parking can create microclimates that are shaded and cooler in the summer, making parking lots more bearable. Instead of a stifling desert, it’s more like an oasis.
Best for Business
Clearwater’s projects have implications for local jobs as Solar Park development supports construction, solar, landscaping, and other local industries. For those businesses watching the coming incentives for reducing carbon dioxide emissions, Clearwater’s power purchase agreement will help achieve this without significantly disturbing annual budgets. They offer a flat monthly fee for energy with no upfront cost and all ownership and servicing is provided by Clearwater.
No power is generated after dark in a Solar Park. “This assures customers won’t loiter or camp in your parking lot overnight,” Johnston said, adding that security and lighting in commercial parking lots varies overnight. A smaller amount of power from the grid can be used afterhours for business operations if desired and this would be accounted for in the PPA. Battery power at night may also be added to the contract.
Are parking lots destined to become the “gas stations” and small business power stations in the future? It’s a reasonable assumption, and it sure gives new meaning to the name Energy “Park”.