Can carports drive a new wave of solar deployment?

It appears that UK MPs have now escalated their rhetoric on ground-mounted solar farms to such an extent that Westminster is now openly hostile towards the lowest cost form of generating solar electricity in the UK.

In the wake of more policy intervention, ominous political phrasing and a new national Solar Strategy, the UK solar industry has begun to evaluate the alternatives to field-based solar. To achieve the scale that the industry is looking for, the most obvious candidates are the large swathes of industrial roofs scattered across the UK but complex owner/tenant issues have hampered take up. Down from the roofs though there is another area of land that could prove fertile if solar developers can develop a compelling proposition: solar carports.

Why carports?

Panos Bitarchas, Solarcube’s CEO, believes that carports help address a number of problems. He says: “Carports reclaim empty space that we just use for putting our car in. With carports we think we have a multipurpose product that can cover our cars, generate renewable electricity and can change the view of a grey, empty space into a nice architectural function. It’s a completely different approach but we feel that car parks can be used to generate electricity locally for heavy users.”

Andy Walsh, general manager roof & carport sales at Belectric adds that carports make compelling propositions for heavy electrical users, he explains: “Carports certainly are the way forward for retail outlets especially. Carports not only generate renewable energy for onsite consumption with all the associated benefits that go with that, they can also help protect customers from the elements.”

Speaking to Solar Business Focus UK, Ray Noble winner of this year’s Solar Power Portal Outstanding Achievement Award 2014, explains why carports are set to become an increasingly important offering for solar installers. He says: “If you look at the supermarkets, the area of the car park in relation to the area of the building is roughly one and a half times greater for the car park area. In addition, when you look at the roof, it has a number of obstacles – so you probably only get to around 50% of the roof. In effect the car park is more than double the opportunity from a solar point of view.”

Potential of UK carports

With the whole industry focused on unlocking the faltering commercial rooftop market, the potential of the solar carport market remains largely untapped. However, Noble explains that solar carports are considered commercial solar projects within the halls of the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC). He states: “The government sees solar carports as being the same as commercial rooftop – if it’s on the roof using electricity in the building or it is on the car park and using electricity in the building – it’s all the same. DECC thinks, ‘It’s up to you as an industry, whatever is easiest; if it’s in the curtilage of the site, it’s the same thing whether it’s on the rooftop or on the car park’.”

Chris Bratherton, business development manager at Ecolution Renewables, and current installer of a 49.95kWp solar carport project in South East London, believes that the potential for solar carports in the UK is massive. He comments: “Solar carports are still in their infancy but they will definitely grow. There are two scenarios: you have the local authorities and the big businesses who have already filled their roof spaces with solar who will be more open to more solar, they will be further along the chain and will be looking for additional productive space. And then you’ll get people whose businesses are already linked to electric vehicles or car parking – the Bluewaters of this world. If you look at the shopping centre, the roof is mostly glass domes or skylights and their car park area is enormous.”

Walsh also believes that by providing shelter, solar carports can help bolster customers’ experiences. “One of our clients in Germany discovered that their footfall went up dramatically after installing a carport because of the convenience aspect, they also didn't have to pay for digging out snow or salting areas so there are a lot of other inherent benefits, it’s a natural progression especially for retailers. “

Walsh notes that solar carports can represent a relatively easy installation, both from a technical and administrative perspective, he states: “Carports are easily deployed: ground-mount systems are on relatively low legs, with carports you just lift them up. Normally you work with a single T-shaped structure that takes up less car park spaces. We’re already aware of what’s happening with roof- and ground-mount solar but what’s happening is that more people are noticing that there is a lot of car park spaces – planning issues are a little more relaxed in that respects because you’re actually enhancing the space in some areas and generating revenue for the client.”

Bratherton agrees with Walsh but warns that solar carports in the UK have a way to go before they can compete directly with roof-mounted solar. He explains: “If you had the initial choice, you’d probably be leaning towards the roof over a solar carport – if you had an equal choice. Roof-mounted arrays can be installed at a low cost, solar carports are not hugely expensive, however, the market is certainly not sufficiently developed to be really lowering the production costs of these carports.”

Despite the logical worth of solar carports, there remains an extremely small number of actual generating installs in the UK. “There’s a lot of appetite but everyone is saying the same thing, show me one. I like your artist’s impression but the installed ones are not in this country,” quips Noble.

“The way I see it is that the primary purpose of the solar carport is not just to put some solar there and generate electricity, is to construct a canopy for other reasons that also has solar on it. If you have a canopy that protects you from the elements, that would be a far better experience for the customer,” he adds.

Building British expertise

Accounting for the particular demands of the UK market is a challenge that all solar carport stakeholders need to front up to in order to truly unlock the nascent potential. Bratherton explains: “Car park owners and operators have got revenue and profit figures per square metre and per parking space; vehicles are getting larger, they’re getting wider – so framing and layout configurations are very important. You do not want to reduce the productive area of the car park, getting the foundation small and as unobtrusive as possible will help with that.”

It’s a challenge that Noble has been wrestling with for some time, he says: “The thing about car parks is that car parking spaces are generally the same size. Standard UK car parking spaces are 4.8x2.4 metres, and you either have single rows of them or back-to-back rows of them. When you have back-to-back rows of them you have aisles that you drive in between to park in your space, those aisles are 6-6.5m wide. So in effect, you have something which is a relatively standard design in terms of dimensions – if you design something around the types of layouts that are out there for car parks, you can do it in quite an economic design which can be spun out into different applications.”

Noble continues: “The car ports that have been designed overseas are, in many cases, not appropriate in the UK. Since we have a complete construction industry there is no reason why we can’t design something which is a very economic structure.”

British solar installers also have the opportunity to build a unique set of skills to help further differentiate themselves. Bratherton adds: “What we found is that there is not just a standard offering, we had so many different technical options put in front of us for different ground conditions, the different applications, for example: our current install is next to a London rail line. They wanted to know, are we going to go micropiles? Are we going to go with a pre-cast concrete foundation? They were worried about us changing the condition of the ground next to a rail line. That’s why don’t think there can be a one size fits all carport – the bit above the ground looks the same but the bit below the grounds will never be the same. There will always be a certain bespoke element.”

Will carports become a common fixture in the UK?

Taken all of the above into account, it would appear that a number of big players are interested in carports. Noble believes that you will start seeing some projects coming online over the coming months. He says: “At this point in time there will be some low hanging fruit in terms of car parks where the client is right, where the site is right; and where the ground conditions are right. The easy wins at this point in time are to do new builds, or pick those low hanging fruit sites. There are sufficient car parks out there to pick and choose what you want to do as your initial ones, as long as you target the right ones.”

It’s a point Walsh agrees with, as he predicts that “you’ll see more and more solar car parks coming on stream, we have local government, local authorities doing this to supply energy for example leisure centres and it will naturally progress through – it’s a very exciting time.”

Bratherton also remains optimistic about the potential of carports, stating: “We have certainly noticed an uptake in carport enquiries, as with everything, high-efficiency modules, remote monitoring etc., you need to be the early adopter – you need to have a couple of proven installs under your belt before you can start to market it with confidence.” 

“In the near-term future I see all of the big framing manufacturers, all of the big names in supply, adding carports to their offering,” continues Bratherton. “I see specialist subgroups of installation companies developing, it can be quite feasible that a company does nothing else but carports. It does actually requires a fairly specific skill set compared to roof-mounted solar because you are into the realms of the foundations, steelwork, underground services etc.”

“What’s happening at the moment is that all the people who are likely to do this are big companies – the big car parks”, adds Noble. “Larger solar developers are too busy at the moment chasing solar fields. I think it’s a very interesting time to see how quickly people get behind solar carports and start getting them out there,” he says.

“As a result, the window of opportunity is huge – whoever gets there first has a big advantage.”