Imagine this: a car park with sleek solar panels mounted on jet-black steel supports, harnessing the sun's energy while providing shade for parked vehicles.

This groundbreaking concept is becoming a reality in car parks across the UK, offering much more than just parking spaces.

These solar car parks, also known as carports, generate electricity, enhance the visual appeal of parking facilities, and provide protection from the elements.

Gaining recognition

The potential of solar car parks is gaining recognition, with the French senate recently passing legislation that mandates solar panel coverage for existing and new car parks with 80 spaces or more. While the UK doesn't have a similar requirement, adopting solar car parks is rising as businesses aim to reduce long-term energy costs and increase reliance on renewable energy sources. 

A report by the countryside charity CPRE (CPRE, the Countryside Charity, formerly known by names such as the Council for the Preservation of Rural England and the Council for the Protection of Rural England, is a charity in England with more thanr 40,000 members and supporters) and the UCL Energy Institute highlights the tremendous opportunity to convert British car parks into solar farms.

Professor Mark Barrett of University College London (UCL) suggests that car parks alone could contribute 11 gigawatts (GW) to the UK's solar capacity out of an estimated potential of 117 GW in the built environment. However, this estimate is based on conservative assumptions, implying the prospect may be even higher.

The surge of interest in solar car parks is undeniable. Businesses in various sectors, including hotels, hospitals, and leisure centres, are exploring the installation of solar canopies in their parking lots. 

Companies specialising in steel structure design and construction, such as SIG and Veolia, have witnessed a sharp increase in demand for solar infrastructure. In addition, Solarsense, another company in the field, has also experienced a rise in inquiries in recent months.

Solar car park benefits and hurdles

Solar car parks offer additional benefits beyond electricity generation.

They can power electric vehicle (EV) charging stations, particularly where cars are parked for extended periods, such as in office complexes or shopping centres. This symbiotic relationship between solar power and EV charging contributes to the overall sustainability of transportation.

However, the cost of steel supports for solar canopies remains a factor to consider.

Installing solar panels on the roofs of large buildings, such as supermarkets, often proves to be more economical. Rooftop installations currently provide electricity at a lower cost per kilowatt-hour (kWh) than car park panels.

Nevertheless, the advantages of solar canopies, such as aesthetics and protection from the elements, outweigh this drawback.

Need for more grid connections

Despite the growing interest in solar car parks, a significant hurdle is the need for more grid connections. The efficient integration of surplus energy generated by solar panels into the grid requires adequate infrastructure, which often needs to be improved.

This issue affects not only car parks but also other renewable energy projects. Regulatory bodies like Ofgem and National Grid are working on solutions to expedite grid connections and improve the overall process.

As the interest in solar car parks continues to surge, it is evident that these spaces are more than just car parks. 

They hold the key to a greener, more sustainable future where clean energy and efficient land use go hand in hand.

With further advancements and support from regulatory bodies, solar car parks could become common, empowering businesses to embrace renewable energy and contribute to a net-zero future.