Solar Brightens Parking Lots Across California

Parking lots with lighting powered by solar are sprouting up all across California. In Fresno, the city council has elected to put solar panels on the roof the carports structures turning much of the convention center into a solar farm. In 2010 dozens of school parking lots across the state are getting topped with solar panels.

Solar investment partnerships with banks and other venture capitalists, California school districts get guaranteed cheap reliable electricity for their buildings saving thousand of dollars. The financial companies that finance the solar systems sell the electricity back to the schools receiving the tax benefits and other state incentives.

California begat cars, and the cars begat asphalt parking lots. And the lots spawned electricity, transforming the hills and the deserts in a New York Times post by Felicity Barringer. Ersatz roofs made of solar panels have sprouted above dozens of school parking lots in the state, altering vistas and promoting a philosophy of green thinking among the young. Yet the primary driver of the solar roofs is economic.

By forming partnerships with banks and other backers, school districts get guarantees of reliably cheap electricity for their buildings for as long as 20 years. The institutions, which finance the systems and sell the electricity back to the schools, also receive tax incentives from the federal and state governments.

So far, solar carports have installers having put up solar structures at some 75 elementary, high school and community college campuses in California, the majority of them in the San Francisco area. Some are designed as a broad fan of panels canting slightly upward and supported by a single pole; more often they are an ode to rectilinearity, parallel to the asphalt and supported by a line of poles between the rows of parking spaces.

Walter Hood, a designer based in Oakland, said he sees the seeds of a new suburban aesthetic in the proliferation of the photovoltaic panels. “It’s an interesting piece of infrastructure,” he said, adding, “So maybe in the future we’re thinking of parking lots as something that is always covered.”

Schools were not the first to move in this direction. Leading the way in this re-creation of the suburban landscape was Google, which added solar canopies to the parking lots at its headquarters in Mountain View, California, three years ago. Some come with outlets for solar charging electric cars.

“At the Googleplex, the solar is almost acting like a grove of trees,” Mr. Hood said. But schools are now at the leading edge of the trend. “This will soon be the norm,” said Michelle O’Shea, a science teacher at Leland High School in southwestern San Jose, where the parking lot went solar a year ago. “It will be hard to imagine that we didn’t do this.”

For students, the new structures can offer an education in how clean electricity is generated. “Schoolchildren are growing up with it, so it becomes ingrained in their perception of how a society functions,” said Brad Parker, a consultant on a solar carport project for the San Luis Coastal Unified School District in central California.

And interest in the solar systems is growing. “I’ve gotten calls from Hawaii, from Canada, from all over California,” said John Cimino, the director of maintenance, operations and transportation for the Milpitas Unified School District, northeast of San Jose.

The solar panels fulfill 75 percent of his district’s annual electricity needs during the school year, he said, and 100 percent of its summer needs. The company that brokered the district’s deal was Chevron Energy Solutions, a subsidiary of Chevron and perhaps the most active of a dozen such intermediaries working around California. The same company helped create a 2.1-megawatt parking lot system on the Fresno campus of California State University.

Brian Swanson, a spokesman for Pacific Gas and Electric, the utility that serves most communities in the Bay Area, said that the overall capacity of school-based solar photovoltaic systems there grew nearly fivefold from 2008 to 2009, to 15.5 megawatts from 327 kilowatts. This year, the cumulative total was 20 megawatts, enough to power 3,500 homes.

Yet in the Southern California city of Lancaster, a single parking-lot solar system being constructed by the Antelope Valley Unified School District could reach 9.6 megawatts, according to Mat Havens, the district’s director of facilities.

The estimated savings over the 20-year life of a generating contract can run from $12 million for a district like Milpitas (although savings last year were a much more modest $51,000) to $40 million for Antelope Valley.

Yet solar parking lots are not solely a California or Southwest phenomenon. In New Jersey, two elementary schools and a middle school in Newark plan to install them in addition to rooftop photovoltaic installations on the school buildings. Boonton High School in Morris County, N.J., is building solar coverings for its parking lots to supplement photovoltaic systems being installed on the roofs of its ice rinks.

While the solar parking lots have generally been welcomed by local residents, people in one town in San Luis Obispo County were less receptive. A community advisory board in the small coastal town of Los Osos voted 8 to 1 to oppose the panels on parking lots at a local middle and elementary school, with one panel member warning of “visual blight.”

Indeed, the current generation of solar carports does have a utilitarian feel and the bare-bones aesthetic of a Quonset hut. But Mr. Hood, the Oakland designer, suggested that designers could work with manufacturers products and change that, treating the photovoltaic materials as a potentially beguiling “surface treatment” rather than a mere assemblage of panels.

“They are becoming more ubiquitous in our landscape,” he said. “It’s not just parking lots.” From schools to offices to malls, commercial solar photovoltaic arrays could one day become as familiar as fire hydrants, Mr. Hood said. “Once they become ubiquitous, they disappear,” he added.