Sarah Lawrence: Shade Our Parking Lots With Solar Panels

Think about the last time you were standing in a parking lot on a steamy Atlanta summer day. It was probably pretty recently, and it was probably pretty unpleasant. Here’s mine: I literally got sunburned this summer while walking from the Lee + White parking lot into the Monday Night Brewing Garage. It was a brisk, short walk.

The sad fact is that surface parking lots are simply too damn hot and unbearable to be in for any longer than a moment. There are lots of ways we could fix Atlanta. As much as it would improve our city, we’re not realistically going to get people out of their cars any time soon. And as great as it would be to live in a public-transit-powered utopia where we could tear up all the parking lots and turn them into wildflower jungles, that also isn’t going to happen in the near future.

A hot parking lot full of electric vehicles is still, well…a hot parking lot. But you know what we can do fairly quickly? Require developers to build solar panels on top of all of them.

Here’s something I always notice that I do not think is a coincidence: renderings of big ATL developments almost always show their little fake humans depicted in evening settings. The gentle glow of lamps as fancy-looking imaginary people walk around looking so happy and contented by the mere presence of fresh commerce options. 

In a rendering of the forthcoming food court at Lee + White in the AJC and this one in CoStar, the complex is shown in the evenings or at night. Of course, most places close pretty early in this complex, around 8-9pm. Hop City, Wild Heaven, and Cultured South are truly bustling in the afternoons, when people can come with their skateboards and critters and kids and spend their time outside. 

If renderings of these two properties were accurate, they’d depict an afternoon scene, and they would show sunburned, grumpy people scampering toward a tiny strip of shade. Skin—including dog paws and toddler feet!—burns when it touches surface temps of 115° or higher. The average surface temp in the Lee + White parking lot on a summer day is more than 140°.

What happens when you put solar panels on parking lots? All sorts of great things, it turns out. Of course, they allow you to park your car in a shady spot, but do you know what else you can do? You can comfortably load/unload an ADA-friendly vehicle, unpack and set up a stroller, lock up your bike, park your scooter, the list goes on. The quality-of-life upgrades of solar-powered parking lots are truly priceless.

Let’s keep going, shall we? You can charge an electric vehicle or any other number of other chargeable people-movers. As a business owner, you can demonstrate to your customers and visitors that you actually give a shit about them, as opposed to forcing them to rush inside for safety as quickly as possible. (Fun fact: happy people spend more money.) Perhaps best of all, you can reduce the impact of the “urban heat island” effect that makes it more expensive and difficult to cool the surrounding buildings, saving more money and improving infrastructure in neighborhoods bearing the brunt of disinvestment.

The only current example I can find of this in ATL is downtown, right next to SkyView Atlanta. Take a look at how the temperature drops when you get under those solar panels. Let me tell you, those solid, shady spots are nice to stand in.

These parking lot solar solutions are called solar groves or solar canopies, which, incidentally, would be a great way to honor the actual tree-based canopy Atlanta claims to be so proud of. Imagine if we could talk about how some of it is made of trees, and some of it is made of solar panels. Pretty cool brag, tbh.

It’s a smart move, but one reason why they’re not happening everywhere is that building solar on developed land can cost anywhere from two to five times as much as on open space. Indeed, according to the Luckie Street parking lot’s permit, the cost of construction for 0.97 acres of solar canopy was $800,000 in 2010. On the bright side, though, while a solar panel parking lot might have cost $824k per acre in 2010, solar becomes cheaper to install every year.

While writing this essay, I called up a commercial solar consultant and pretended to be a developer (Sorry, Jason!) to get an idea of how feasible this would really be. While he confirmed that solar canopy parking lots are indeed more expensive than installing them on rooftops, he also confirmed they’re cheaper than they used to be and are also becoming a lot more popular.

For instance, there’s a 30% federal tax credit for solar projects and, along with the opportunity to use an accelerated depreciation corporate deduction, companies often recoup half of the upfront cost in the first year alone and the power pays for itself in about a decade. Plus, there’s a 25-year guarantee on the panels. Not bad, right?

There are other opportunities for quickly building large complexes of solar canopies through what’s called a solar power purchase agreement, where a third-party company will build and manage solar panels on parking lots. In those cases, the commercial property owner can cover their parking lot in shade with no capital down whatsoever, and they can purchase their power from the third-party instead of the grid. (If this sounds familiar, it’s because this is quickly becoming popular in California with companies like Sunrun.) Either option seems like a huge win.

Moreover, we don’t have the many years needed for piddly parking lot trees to become large and expansive. Developers are cutting down Atlanta’s tree canopy at an alarming rate. This is often to build housing and increase density, which Atlanta desperately needs. In the process, however, old growth trees are removed again and again, replaced by tiny ones that make our “urban heat island” effect worse as the years go by. Atlanta—much like the rest of the world—is heating up, and we desperately need something in place to offset this incredible increase in temperature. We needed to start building these solar panels yesterday.

When I was driving through California last spring, we stopped at a library (Did I mention that I love libraries?) to use the bathroom and refill our water. What I saw when we turned the corner took my breath away: the library’s massive parking lot was completely covered in solar panels. There were no depressing, emaciated parking lot trees here, just a sea of regenerative power and shade. It was the middle of the day in Southern California, but we were able to take a beat, rest outside the car, shake the sand out of our shoes (even while standing barefoot on the asphalt for a minute), and walk over to a nearby grassy park to eat lunch.

When I came home to the overheated surface parking lots of my hometown, I felt angry. We should have that here. We need to have that here. And you know what? It can be inexpensive. It can be easy. We already require developers to build a certain number of bathrooms, a certain number of parking spaces, and other requirements in order to receive permits and adhere to code. Why not simply require all surface parking lots be covered by solar panels?

Sarah Lawrence

Sarah Lawrence is a multidisciplinary designer and art director in Atlanta, Georgia. She is the founder of Tallymade, a digital interactive installation platform designed to make surveys more fun for participants, and Design Emporium, a tiny creative studio solving problems big and small for companies around the world.