Solar Parking Lots Are a Win-Win Energy Idea. Why Aren’t They the Norm?

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Commuting students and tailgaters at Michigan State University get a bit of relief from the elements when they park their cars to head into class or a football game. , tall enough to park an RV underneath, stand on steel trusses above the lot, providing a bit of shelter and shade. Not only does the university get , its students have cooler cars in August and don’t have to spend time scraping their cars free of snow in 20-degree weather in January.

I know because I parked under them for almost two years as a commuting student.

It struck me as such a useful system that it seems strange that every parking lot doesn’t have solar panels over it. whether it’s , or over a parking lot. The owners of big parking lots may not site solar there for a number of reasons, including both price and inconvenience. However, some solar experts think it’s possible that a swell of interest in sustainability could bring more solar parking arrays in the coming years.

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The upfront costs of solar

For many homeowners, installing solar panels .The same is true for large institutions.

Michigan State estimated the parking lot panels (located over five lots) would . The university gets the electricity from the panels under a , which means it doesn’t own the panels but agrees to purchase the power. It saves by getting the power for a lower price than from an alternative source.

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While the economics of a power purchase agreement are a bit different, for the company that absorbs the construction costs, building elsewhere would be a better deal. 

“A carport is roughly 40% more expensive compared to a ground mount system,” said Tim Powers, a research and policy associate for , the company that built Michigan State’s system.It costs more because of extra materials (it takes taller, stronger structures to get solar panels that far off the ground), extra labor (it takes longer to build) and extra engineering costs, he said.

If the only motivation is getting solar for the cheapest possible price, carports aren’t the way to go. But there are other reasons an institution might adopt solar in their parking lots.

Michigan State’s carports have won national and state awards, and account for 5% of the energy consumption on campus — a step towards the university’s sustainability goals and a nice round of good publicity.Several people I interviewed for this story suggested it might make the university more attractive to incoming students, BBC World News Today though empirical evidence of the impact of a school’s sustainability on a student choosing it is harder to find.

 suggested that while 65% of consumers (not necessarily students) said they were interested in buying sustainable or green products, only 26% actually did so.

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