- Chris Baranyuk
- Business Technology Reporter
It’s not just cars and empty spaces in this parking lot: numerous solar panels sit atop jet-black steel trusses, absorbing the sun’s rays and shading the vehicles below.
Outside the offices of a major car manufacturer in the south of England, there are now 2,000 panels with a maximum capacity of less than 1 megawatt.
This is enough to power hundreds of homes.
“They’re amazing,” said Guy Silvers, director of business development at Sage, a company that supplies solar panels.
He insists that these panels should make the parking lots visually appealing.
Solar car parks or carports allow the generation of electricity in open spaces conveniently placed near energy consuming facilities such as hospitals, shopping malls or offices. The panels have the added benefit of protecting cars from rain, snow or summer sun.
In an effort to boost clean energy production, the French Senate recently approved a mandatory law requiring all existing and new car parks to have 80 or more spaces with solar panels.
Although there are no equivalent requirements in the UK, solar car parks have been around for years and there are signs that they are starting to flourish here. With electricity prices currently high, many companies are turning to on-site renewables in an effort to keep costs low in the long run.
There is a huge opportunity to turn more UK car parks into solar farms, according to a new report by countryside charity CBRE and the UCL Energy Institute.
“We think the total energy in the built environment is about 117 gigawatts,” says Professor Mark Barrett of University College London. “Of that, we think 11 gigawatts is parking,” he adds.
The UK currently has a total of 15 gigawatts of solar power and needs 40 gigawatts to reach net zero targets by 2030, according to Solar Energy UK.
Professor Barrett points out that the 11 gigawatt figure is conservative and based on an estimate of 130 square kilometers of car parks in England – less than the 200 square kilometers estimated by estate agents Knight Frank. The CBRE and UCL report assumed that 50% of each individual car park would be covered by a canopy instead of 100%.
Whichever way you look at it, there’s plenty of room in parking lots for solar panels, and people are starting to realize it.
“It’s been absolutely crazy,” Silvers says, referring to her inbox. Recently, it has been used for hotels, hospitals and leisure centers. Silvers and colleagues design and build the steel structures for the sunshades, while the panels are delivered individually.
Competitors who spoke to the BBC also described high demand for solar car park shades.
Spain-based Praxia Energy supplies around 3 MW of solar installations to car parks in the UK each year and expects this to increase tenfold by 2028.
A Veolia spokesperson says the company recently installed a 1.1 MW solar canopy system in Eastbourne Hospital’s car park, adding that demand for solar infrastructure in the UK has recently been increasing.
SolarSense, based in Clevedon, says inquiries have increased in recent months.
Tim Evans, chief executive of 3T, argues that in the past, the UK has been slower to adopt the technology than countries on the continent. “We’re a bit behind,” he says.
However, there are some notable examples. The largest solar car park ever installed in the UK is at the Bentley car factory in Crewe, with a maximum capacity of 2.7 MW.
Evans says he is currently exploring four new potential projects with customers exceeding 5 megawatts.
Solar panels in parking lots can also power electric vehicle (EV) charging. This works especially well in offices where employees’ cars are parked outside for hours. Malls, football stadiums, entertainment centers and movie theaters are suitable locations because cars are parked for two hours or more to allow for adequate charging, says Evans.
But the steel supports required for many solar panels add to the cost. It is often cheaper to put solar panels on the roofs of large buildings such as supermarkets. Evans estimates that rooftop solar currently produces electricity at 9p per kWh, compared with 14p or 15p per kWh from panels in car parks.
The panels don’t have many other obvious drawbacks, says Richard Watkins of Kent University. He notes that installers may want to install them with effective lighting under the canopy so they don’t lead to dark, hazardous locations at night.
One of the obstacles currently facing many renewable energy projects is the lack of grid connections, for example the excess electricity produced by solar panels must be handled by the grid. According to a BBC study, billions of pounds worth of renewables have already been put on hold because of the problem.
“I have a megawatt car park, a good car park, a plant that was rejected as not being able to get a grid connection,” says Silvers.
A spokesperson for UK Solar highlights the issue, saying it remains a “remote possibility” until solar car parks, which have become a common sight, are resolved.
Energy sector regulator Ofgm is looking for ways to speed up communication, and has plans to improve the National Grid process.
Professor Sarah Walker of the University of Newcastle notes that there are plenty of places around the UK, apart from car parks, that could accommodate solar installations and help move away from fossil fuels. Bike paths and train tracks, for example, or reservoirs covered with floating solar panels help reduce evaporation loss of water from reservoirs.
“It helps us double the land surface because we can co-locate solar photovoltaic cells with infrastructure like car parks,” he says.
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