Surface parking is an expensive necessity for many projects, including retail, industrial, and commercial buildings. Each space can cost anywhere from $1,500 to $3,000, depending on the lot’s land cost, grading, and surfacing. There are also long-term maintenance and resurfacing costs over the lot’s lifetime.
Once completed, surface parking lots provide minimal revenue to property owners—but Kitchener-based VCT Group is working to change this with its innovative solar canopy systems. Beyond new revenue opportunities, solar canopy systems can transform surface parking lots from carbon-emitting heat sinks into environmentally friendly green energy sources.
VCT Group is a leader in the solar energy space, specifically with rooftop solar systems. In 2018, VCT Group designed and installed the solar carport at the evolv1 project in Waterloo. Brian Unrau, President at VCT Group, said a solar carport wasn’t his first choice for the project, but developer Adrian Conrad convinced him otherwise.
“I tried to convince Adrian Conrad that he should consider solar trackers in the parking lot. But he insisted on a carport. I said okay, we’ll build you a carport—and I fell in love with it. Everybody understands them. There’s no fear or intimidation. Everyone wants to park under them—I think they’re just an excellent match for society,” Unrau said.
The evolv1 project is Canada’s first zero-carbon building and is certified LEED Platinum. Its solar carport provides coverage for 164 spaces along with 28 electric vehicle (EV) charging stations for use by building tenants. Zac Jolliffe, Business Development Manager at VCT Group, said the carport provides the building with benefits for tenants and building owners and operators.
“They are great to park under when it’s hot since your car is in the shade. Then in the winter, you don’t have to brush and scrape ice and snow,” Jolliffe said. “While that’s great for the user, there are benefits for the property owner too. Now you can generate a return on those spaces, whether that’s charging for premium parking or generating solar power. The solar itself will generate a return over its lifetime and pay for itself. We really think that these are a win-win for everyone. They’re good for the environment, good for the people who are parking underneath them, and great for the building owners.”
One misconception Unrau said many people have about solar carports is that the power is only used for EV chargers. The solar panels are connected to the building’s electrical system and can be used for everything from inside the building to outside lighting and the EV chargers. That means the EV chargers will provide a consistent charge, even on cloudy days or in the evening.
“Electricity will flow into the main service point for the building. If the building has excess power, it goes out to the grid,” Unrau said.
As demand for solar carports increases, VCT Group has moved from using OEM carports to designing and manufacturing its own systems. The company has a manufacturing facility in Kitchener that does the final cutting, milling, and drilling for its solar carport components.
Solar canopies and carports have use cases beyond commercial and industrial applications. Municipalities could potentially install solar carports to generate additional revenue from premium parking services while producing power that could be provided back to the grid.
“Some cities charge a premium for covered parking, and with a solar carport, you’d have a swift payback on a solar installation,” Unrau said. “The challenge right now is that we are still bound under net metering rules, which limit the use of the energy to the property itself.”
With net metering, a property receives credits for the power it generates from sources like solar power. If the property doesn’t use all its generated credits within a calendar year, the excess is donated back to the grid.
The solution could be the implementation of virtual net metering. That system allows properties to move generated credits to other properties to create a monetization opportunity. Jolliffe said the current system limits what solar power can do in Ontario.
“You have some people who have a lot of space to install solar, but they’re never going to install more than they can consume on the site because of the current rules. Then others want solar, but they don’t have the right roof to make it work financially. Virtual net metering—or community solar, as it’s also known—solves both of these problems,” Jolliffe said.
Longevity is another consideration for solar panel installation. Since they have long lifetimes, Unrau said that rooftop and parking lot installations are great choices. Beyond those, Unrau said that solar canopies are perfect for any site that can benefit from a covered shelter.
“Even on farm properties, where protecting equipment and animals is critical. Solar canopies can be cost-competitive with other types of shelter—and something that will pay for itself with energy generation,” Unrau said.
As businesses and government policymakers work towards a net-zero future, Unrau added that all paths require us to move from natural gas to electrical for new projects.
“We are happy to support the construction industry as we move forward into an electric future,” Unrau said.
July – August 2023
Article Author: Alex Kinsella