Sometimes the best ideas come to you when you least expect them.
That's what happened to Gloria Marsh when she was walking through a community centre parking lot on a hot day.
Marsh, executive director of the York Region Environmental Alliance (YREA), is always looking for how we can do things better for ourselves and the planet.
With the heat rising off the vast, sun-drenched expanse of asphalt, Marsh pondered the concept of covering parking lots of civic centres, libraries, community centres, hospitals, and shopping centres with solar panels.
Taking advantage of the space to incorporate renewable energy solutions into the region's power infrastructure would support its target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions (GHGE) to net zero by 2050.
The solar carport concept is already in use.
The British Columbia Institute of Technology (BCIT) created an Energy Oasis incorporating solar power with EV charging stations. BCIT's project inspired the City of Burnaby to install a large-scale solar canopy that helps power over 100 EV charging stations in its parking lots.
Mohawk College received funding in 2018 to build a 200-car solar carport. The institution estimates that the structure powers the equivalent of 400 homes.
Michigan State University has an extensive solar carport system throughout its campus parking lots covering over 5,000 parking spaces.
Eliminating the use of fossil fuels like natural gas is one critical step toward mitigating climate change. Using renewable green energy sources like solar power can help achieve this.
Furthermore, cars shaded from the sun would absorb less heat and operate more efficiently, with a need for less air conditioning. Less ambient heat from shaded asphalt would help to keep surrounding buildings cooler and more energy efficient.
A letter from YREA to federal ministers last fall urged them to consider funding to expedite solar carport pilot projects. The group suggests that the federal Green Municipal Fund could help finance the projects.
YREA has already presented the concept of solar carports to the Mayor of Vaughan and to councils for Georgina, King, and Newmarket. The group is available to present the concept to other regional municipalities upon request.
"We plant the seed, and enlightened leaders can run with it," Marsh said.
Andrew Yang, director of market strategy and innovation for Bullfrog Power, provided some data on potential energy output and cost considerations for a solar carport. Since 2005, Bullfrog Power's vision "is to be Canada's source for smarter, greener energy solutions."
A solar carport covering a single parking stall would produce approximately 3,500 to 4,000 kilowatt hours (kWh) of electricity per year with approximate CO2 reductions of 0.11 to 0.49 tons per year, varying with the proportion of renewables in the total mix of energy on the grid.
A typical EV such as a Tesla Model 3 or Chevy Volt requires approximately 50-65 kWh to charge an empty battery. A 100-stall carport could produce enough energy to fully charge over 6,100 EVs per year.
The estimated cost is $15,000 to $25,000 per solar carport stall with an approximate simple payback period of eight to 12 years.
Yang explained that in provinces like Alberta, an increase in severe weather patterns that include damaging hail is forcing businesses like automobile dealerships to install carports to protect their inventory.
When there's already a concurrent demand for a carport, installing a solar roof adds a relatively small premium.
Though concepts like solar carports may be considered somewhat outside the box, Marsh and the YREA embrace a logical approach to sustainability. Going green is beneficial, but "we have to do all of this responsibly," said Marsh, adding, "we've got to look at the whole cradle to grave."
Solar panels are robust and can last 25 to 30 years. Global efforts are underway to streamline recycling methods for panels that are no longer viable. The ultimate vision is to achieve a circular economy to recover and reprocess old panels to manufacture new ones.
YREA is a not-for-profit registered charitable organization with a constantly expanding mandate to address ecological issues impacting our health, environment, and planet. Visit yrea.org for information.
Jennifer McLaughlin, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Markham Review