Local Government

Turning Parking Lots Into Clean Energy Power Plants

Becker’s New SB 49 Will Create Incentive For Companies To Build “Solar Canopies” To Generate Enough Electricity To Power Millions Of Homes

Making better use of the thousands of acres of parking lot spaces by encouraging businesses to build “solar canopies” that could generate enough electricity to power millions of homes is the goal of Senator Josh Becker’s (D-San Mateo) SB 49, which was introduced Monday at the State Capitol.

“Solar farms use a tremendous amount of land, but that type of open space either isn’t available or is tremendously expensive in cities and suburbs that use the most power,” said Becker.  “That’s what makes the solar canopy concept so appealing, because it wouldn’t require any more land, it would just give parking lot owners an incentive to make dual use of their lots by essentially putting a miniature power plant above all those cars.”

The bill would create a tax incentive for companies to build solar canopies in large parking lots to boost the local generation of clean electricity in urban and suburban areas.  That will reduce the need to build solar farms in rural areas where they can have negative impacts on the environment and land used for agriculture purposes – in addition to requiring lengthy transmission lines to get the clean energy to more highly populated areas.

According to a report from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, pavement makes up 35%-50% of the total surface area in cities, and 40% of that pavement is parking lots.  Putting a solar canopy over an existing parking lot is a much more efficient use of space than acquiring land to install a ground-mounted system.

Last month in France, the Senate passed legislation requiring all parking lots with more than 80 spaces to be covered by solar panels.  The French government estimates its plan could generate up to 11 gigawatts (GW) of electricity, which is the equivalent of 10 nuclear reactors, powering millions of homes.  Meanwhile, back in March, Washington State’s governor signed a bill to let businesses that put up solar canopies in large-scale commercial parking lots and similar areas pay the sales and use taxes associated with buying the equipment over an eight-year period instead of having to pay them all upfront.

While solar canopies can be found in California, their use is not widespread – something Becker hopes to change with SB 49.  What could this mean for California?

Los Angeles County has an estimated 101 square miles of parking lots that could likely produce 6.5 GW of power if they were covered by solar canopies.  Given Los Angeles County is home to about 25% of the state’s population, if you assume there are 400 square miles of parking lots in the state (scaling the parking lots up by population, not by geography) that could mean almost 26 GW of solar could be available through these solar canopies.

California’s energy agencies estimate the state needs about 110 GW of new solar power to meet its 100% clean energy target by 2045.   If half of the state’s parking lots were covered with solar canopies, that would provide 13 GW of power – more than 10% of the new solar needed.  One GW of electricity is equal to 1 billion watts of power – enough to power approximately 250,000 homes.

“This is one of the many tools we’re going to need to use to hit our targets of using 90% clean energy by 2035 and achieving 100% carbon neutrality by 2045,” continued Becker.  “In my view, this is relatively low-hanging fruit.  We’ve got the land available – now the challenge is to make better use of it.”

SB 49 will be assigned to a Senate policy committee where it will be heard in early 2023.

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