We have all experienced the vast parking lots of malls, shopping centers, or the local big box retailers. These seemingly endless wastelands of blacktop, sizzling under the summer sun, as we circle the rows attempting to calculate the closest available spot to an entrance. Walking from our car feeling the heat from the rays of the sun as well as emanating up from the scalding black surface. Watching the trucks unloading on the dock and the endless sea of cars along with the vast structures themselves all lend a sense of a bygone era and often leads to us questioning the carbon footprint of our purchases, the costs of these spaces, and experiences.
One solution for these vast, underutilized spaces that focuses on a positive future through current action is solar power. Current studies indicate that a typical five acre lot for a big box retailer supercenter in the US could produce a potential photovoltaic power load to charge over 100 electric vehicles. For one major retailer, researchers estimated that through this innovation they alone could generate 11 gigawatts or the equivalent of 11 large power plants. Many lots that currently have canopies to protect shoppers from rain, sun, and snow that could easily be converted to include solar panels to capture this potential. For those that do not currently have canopies, the investment opens opportunities to engage as an active charging station for electric vehicles, a growing segment of car sales. Unlike many of the challenges facing large scale solar farming, including community debates on the visual impact on the local environment, is not an issue when looking at massive parking lots. The potential power output could be used to power the local area, adding to the narrative of community stewardship and eco responsibility to these structures.
Researchers created their estimates based on direct satellite and drone imagery that allow
micro scale measurements to calculate the solar potential. This combined with thermal imaging technology gives detailed and specific data on the potential of each individual location. The expansion of this opportunity by just one big box retailer could have a profound impact across the country. One example is that over 90% of Americans would have a charging station within 15 miles at any time, supporting both current EV owners and being critical for EV adoption. Another compelling reason is the need for microgrid systems. Utilizing these lots could supply power for 1,000 households. These microgrid systems are integral to our future power generation needs as they are less vulnerable to outside environmental issues like fires or storms, are more locally focused rather than state or regionally focused, and can utilize a wide array of power generation such as solar, wind, or traditional source.
There are real life examples that exist today to give data to these opportunities. Rutgers University in Piscataway, NJ for example, built a solar parking facility that comprises a 32 acre footprint and generates a 8_MW output. Evansville Regional Airport in Evansville, IN opened two solar parking structures over 368 spaces that generated over 50% of the electricity for the facility, averaging 1.3_MW.
While this data captures the possibilities, the reality of these opportunities are vast while the industry is only in its infancy. As you drive today, take in the parking lots and structures on your way. Single use parking lots ignore the opportunities for positive and productive environmental action, power consumption needs, as well as the consumers expectations of corporate responsibility.