Recharging our Cities – One Solar Parking Canopy at a Time

At the intersection of I-96 and  the East Beltline in Grand Rapids there  a low profile, barely noticeable parking canopy uses solar power to energize highway lighting. I found this unique piece of parking technology tucked in between a chain hotel, bank, and some other highway-style developments. Two south-facing permanent awnings protect a 45 cars from sun and snow while also generating clean, renewable energy from the sun.

According to the official project page, MDOT spent $650,000 on the system which will produce 106,000 kWh annually. This energy savings will lead to $13,500 in reduced operating costs for lighting alone. You can see all the stats on this project on the helpful info-graphic (PDF). (Strangely, the one figure I can’t seem to find is the overall system size in kilowatts – a common way to get apples-to-apples comparisons across solar installations.)

The design of the canopy is spartan and utilitarian. The solar panels do not have an underlayment or sheathing – the panels themselves act as the only protection from the elements. In addition, the canopy has a low angle. The typical rule of thumb for solar panel installation is that they should be installed at roughly the same angle as your latitude. That said, there are optimal summer and winter tilt angles – however the panels installed at this site are far below the 42º recommended by solar energy system designers

Another piece of vehicular infrastructure of interest happens to be located in this parking lot: charging stations. Three simple 110 volt outlets with signage allow hotel guests and other users of the space to recharge battery powered cars, trucks, motorcycles and scooters. The outlets are standard NEMA 5 outlets. While this is clearly a welcoming gesture to owners of electric vehicles, it’s usefulness is debatable. The industry standard for public charging is the J1772  – an outlet that allows much faster recharging. (The J1772 is a 5-pin plug with the ability to deliver 220 volts at 80 amps.)

From its appearance, the solar canopy system installed at this park and ride lot was experimental for the project managers at MDOT. I would like to see electric vehicle charging infrastructure seamlessly integrated into future solar canopy projects. While there are technical hurdles to consider, the promise of solar-powered transportation is an inspiration that could cause a massive improvements in our environment and economy. (This is especially the case when you consider that 72¢ of every $1 spent on energy in Michigan goes out of state to support coal and gas industries.)

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2 thoughts on “Recharging our Cities – One Solar Parking Canopy at a Time

  1. You know – you followed my blog, which is dominated by Kickstarter and geek issues, but your blog speaks to me as I work in the renewable energy industry as well. Wind not solar, but still amusing. Keep up the good work!

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