Solar canopies: Bring solar panels to your parking lot

solar parking canopies

The financial and environmental benefits of solar are greater than ever, and companies looking to benefit can now install a solar canopy over their parking lots to share in the savings. Businesses across the country are building solar parking lots that provide shade for cars while simultaneously generating renewable energy – and they're saving thousands of dollars on electricity bills in the process.

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Solar canopies are elevated structures that host solar panels and provide shade. Typically installed over parking lots or other paved areas, solar canopies are similar to solar carports and ground-mounted solar panels. Each design provides an alternative to rooftop solar, whether because a roof can't host solar panels or because the electricity needs of the business are too large for a rooftop solar system. Solar canopies also make it easy to install electric vehicle charging stations, which any EV-driving visitor or employee will appreciate.

The benefits of solar are well documented: when you install a solar energy system, you reduce your electric bills, protect against rising energy costs, and reduce your environmental impact. Solar parking lots have a few additional benefits that standard roof-mounted and ground-mounted solar panel systems don't always offer.

Parking lots are an untapped opportunity for solar installations all across the country. According to the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, pavement makes up 35 to 50 percent of total surface area in cities, and 40 percent of that pavement is parking lots. Installing a solar canopy over an existing parking lot is a more efficient use of space than installing a standard ground-mounted system. When you build a solar canopy, you add more uses to the same square footage and don't have to set aside additional space.

If you've ever had to get into a hot car that has been sitting in the sun all day, it's easy to understand why the shade provided by a solar canopy is another significant benefit. This shade, however, is more than just a matter of comfort. When you build a solar canopy in your parking lot, the shade it provides can also improve the fuel economy of cars that park under it. According to, running your car's air conditioning (AC) system is the leading cause of reduced fuel economy in hot weather. Under sweltering conditions (such as when your car has been baking in the hot sun), using the AC can reduce a conventional vehicle's fuel economy by more than 25 percent. The effect can be even more significant for hybrids, plug-in hybrids, and electric vehicles. By keeping cars cool on hot days, solar parking lots reduce the need for heavy air conditioning use.

Rooftop solar arrays are restricted by the characteristics of the roof on which they're installed. If your roof doesn't face south, isn't the right pitch, or has obstructions like chimneys, skylights, or vents, your solar array will be less productive. With a parking canopy, you can orient the panels to produce as much electricity as possible, which also maximizes your savings.

The economics of your solar canopy will depend on the size of your system and how much you currently pay for electricity. Here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Solar panels typically reach their maximum production in the afternoon, when demand charges can be very high. If your business is subject to demand charges during periods of peak consumption, a solar canopy can dramatically reduce your bill by cutting your grid electricity use during those times.

  • A solar parking lot will cost more than a similarly sized rooftop installation because of the additional labor and equipment needed to construct the canopies that host the panels. However, as mentioned above, solar canopies offer additional environmental benefits, often produce more electricity, and aren't subject to the same spatial constraints as rooftop systems.

  • In addition to the tax breaks available for solar, businesses that construct solar canopies (and other types of solar arrays) can write off the value of their solar energy systems through the Modified Accelerated Cost Recovery System (MACRS), which reduces businesses' tax burden and accelerates returns on solar investments. Qualified solar energy equipment is eligible for a cost recovery period of five years, and accelerated depreciation can reduce your net system cost by an additional 30 percent.

For more on the financial benefits of solar, take a look at the case studies below from the EnergySage Solar Marketplace.

City of Santa Cruz, CA

In 2012, the City of Santa Cruz installed a solar canopy over two publicly owned parking lots. In addition to generating electricity and providing shade, the carports have charging stations for municipal electric vehicles. Overall, the two systems produce an average annual savings of $73,000 and meet more than half of the electricity demand for the sites where they were installed. The estimated total savings for the 25-year lifetime of the system is more than $4 million. Click here to read the City of Santa Cruz case study.

University of Colorado, Boulder

In 2009, the University of Colorado, Boulder, installed a solar carport at their Mountain Research Center. Like the City of Santa Cruz, CU Boulder's carport is wired for electric vehicle charging stations. The university's solar parking lot offers an average annual savings of $21,750, equivalent to an eight percent return on the initial investment. In the subsequent two years, CU Boulder built two more solar carports on its campus, helping to achieve LEED Platinum status for some of its buildings. Click here to read the CU Boulder case study. 

Solar parking canopies are a major construction investment with the potential for significant savings. The best way to determine which solar canopy is the best option for your property is to compare multiple offers from qualified solar installers in your area. On the EnergySage Solar Marketplace, you can secure quotes from pre-screened local installers and compare them based on pricing, savings, system size, and equipment. Register your property and specify in the "add details" section that you are looking for a solar parking lot installation. If you are building a canopy from the ground up for this project, drag the pin to your parking lot or other area where you would like the solar canopy to be built.

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