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Parking lots are becoming as important as cars in climate change efforts – CNBC

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It’s not just cars that will be going through energy transition in the years ahead. The parking lots where EVs recharge are a growing focus of construction efforts linked to climate change and carbon reduction.

A law approved in France last month requires that parking lots with 80 or more spaces be covered by solar panels within the next five years. For the biggest parking lots, those with more than 400 spaces, three years has been granted to have at least half of the parking lot’s surface area covered by solar.  

Similar renewable energy design ideas are expected to gain more market share in the U.S. if not necessarily through a federal mandate.

“You’ll see a lot of the same stuff that you’re seeing in France and other countries, but it probably won’t necessarily play out the same way, in terms of federal action versus state action,” said Bill Abolt, vice president and lead of energy business for infrastructure consulting firm AECOM.

As local and state governments create mandates for renewable energy deployment, and the federal government takes an incentive-based approach to encourage climate technology through measures like the Inflation Reduction Act, major corporations are making their own commitments to solar power.

Target, Home Depot, Walmart and renewable energy

Target revamped one of its California stores with solar panel carports this spring. Home Depot is making efforts to have all of its stores use only renewable energy by 2030, while Walmart hopes to achieve this by 2040. These efforts won’t only come through producing renewable power on-site —  procurement of renewable energy from utility-scale projects is among strategic options to meet these goals — but investing in solar power for store locations will become more prevalent.

“You have a lot of significant companies that have stepped up and made commitments to renewable energy and similar things with local governments and institutions. So, there’s no doubt that that level of investment has accelerated the development of technology, the deployment of more cost effective solar,” Abolt said.

The cost to install solar has dropped by more than 60% over the past decade, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.

“There’s no doubt that the cost curve of solar gets better and better all the time and will continue to do so. Private business has done a lot, and we’re seeing even more private investment likely to happen as a result,” Abolt said.

Global commercial real estate company CBRE is partnering with renewable energy company Altus Power to work with clients including many Fortune 500 companies on solar projects.

“The topics that are top of mind for these corporations right now are decarbonization and energy efficiency and energy resiliency,” said Lars Norell, co-founder and co-CEO of Altus Power. “The No. 1 answer is building-sited clean energy,” he said.

Solar powered cars are here — but can they go mainstream?

Norell said it has now become possible for businesses of all sizes to consider renewable energy projects.

“Something that Walmart or IKEA or Amazon does, smaller family-owned businesses come to us and say ‘Should we do the same thing? Could our roof hold solar?’ The answer in almost all those cases is absolutely yes,” he said.

Public expectations and pressure from boards are key factors in why major corporations tend to act quicker than smaller companies when it comes to renewable energy. “In many cases, smaller companies don’t have quite such an audience that is expecting them to act, but many of them are acting sort of out of self-interest or because they would like to save money,” Norell said.

Solar power and commercial real estate

Solar carports and rooftop solar are the primary solar designs being adopted in the world of commercial real estate.

“We find that there is almost no debate around the wisdom of putting solar in a parking lot,” Norell said. “We believe that rooftop solar and carport solar are going to be easier for most communities to not only accept but embrace as a way to make clean energy.”

In recent years, an increasing number of solar projects have been built over commercial parking lots, and state governments have created incentives specifically for solar carports, including the 2018 Solar Massachusetts Renewable Target, and the Maryland Energy Administration Solar Canopy Grant Program, which provides funding to incentivize the use of solar carports and parking garages, with EV chargers included on site. It has provided up to $250,000 per solar carport project, creating an incentive for commercial businesses to invest in the projects.

“Increasing power prices and more government support, like in France where they mandated it, we think will mean that more parking lots are going to have carports,” Norell said.

Commercial retail centers and logistics buildings are prime targets for solar. Commercial retail centers, like grocery stores, consume higher levels of energy and often feature big parking lots. Logistics buildings like warehouses feature large rooftops that are optimal places to implement rooftop solar energy.

Altus Power forecasts that most buildings will have a solar power system over the next decade.

With the growing production and consumption of EVs — the International Energy Agency reported that U.S. electric car sales doubled in market share to 4.5% in 2021, reaching 630,000 EVs sold — solar-powered commercial businesses become more beneficial to consumers requiring EV chargers in parking lots.  

The same will be the case for warehouses and distribution centers.

“Once we start getting good at having electrical-powered van fleets and trucks, all those trucks come to those logistical buildings, and that’s an excellent spot to put up fleet chargers, so that when the truck is busy … we take the opportunity to charge its electrical battery as well,” Norell said. “We can charge it with clean electricity because we’re making solar power on the roof, and that’s then going into the truck.”

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