Solar synergies: The market for solar carports expands alongside growing interest in EVs

A solar carport is the perfect complement to an EV. Not only does it ensure that your pretty new automobile, and the electrons powering it, stay clean, but it keeps things cool, making for slightly more efficient charging, and it serves as a visible advertisement for the new energy future.

Charged recently spoke with the leaders of two companies that are taking two different approaches to supplying the growing demand for solar-powered EV charging.

Solar synergies - Renewz and Envision Solar2

Renewz

Renewz Sustainable Solutions, which is based in Montreal, and recently opened an office in Florida, designs and sells solar carports with optional charging stations. Its customers include utilities, corporations, municipal governments and educational institutions.

CEO Sass M. Peress, who has a background in both the automotive and solar energy fields, got into this emerging industry in 2009 when he joined a GM-supported company that was building solar carports as part of the launch of the Volt. After just a couple of years, sensing that GM was not going to be the only player in the emerging EV game, Peress left to start up his own company.

“We looked worldwide for what was innovative in the marketplace, and we found an Italian partner, Giulio Barbieri, that had designed a very easy-to-deploy carport, made out of anodized aluminum,” Peress told Charged. “It was a ballasted design, so you really could just drop and play. We got the rights to that in North America, and signed our first deal in 2012, with a Toronto-based mobile phone company called BHAA, who wanted to build a solar carport because they were facing a highway, which had a quarter million eyeballs a day, and they really wanted to drive sustainability across the country.”

Several other projects for utility companies followed, but along the way, Peress discovered that he really didn’t want to be doing the installation projects. “We just wanted to supply our platform to technology providers and installers, partner with them, and go after all kinds of people that can deploy solar carports.”

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Renewz is still working on a couple of installations, but once those are complete, the company will shift its business model to supplying hardware and software solutions to local contractors, who will handle installation and customer service. “We’re no longer doing projects, we are simply going to use a new way of designing solar carports online, and enable people to present solar carports to their clients,” says Peress.

The company’s web-based design tool allows customers to create their own custom carport configurations online, to choose optional features such as ad banners and rain gutters, and to visualize how an installation will look on a specific site. “We’re going to take that way further, and do the kinds of integration, 360-degree viewing and financial calculations that allow people to really understand what they can do with a carport installation,” says Peress.

Renewz offers both ballasted designs and models that can be permanently affixed to concrete or asphalt. Its iSun product line features a naming system like the one that a certain California car company wanted to use: Models S, E, X and Y.

“The Model S is meant to be temporary,” explains Peress. “It’s on ballasts that are not pinned to the ground. They can be mounted in three hours, and dismounted in two. If you think of outdoor events, or any light commercial area where you may be using this for a period of time, but then moving it, the Model S is the one for you. The Models E, X and Y are pinned to the ground, using plates with ballasts that sit on top, so there is no foundation support. Now, in areas where that may not be practical or, for example, if the ballast – which is about 18 inches wide – restricts parking in any way, we have a non-ballasted solution, in which case people would just have to pour a small pier, and connect our carport to the ballast.”

renewz

EV charging is an optional feature, but it has been included in every deployment Renewz has done to date. “It’s an equivalency story,” says Peress. “In other words, the energy does not go directly to the EV charger. Solar fluctuates during the course of a day, and is nonexistent at night. So, what you’re doing is, you’re sending energy into the grid, and pulling power from the grid whenever you need to charge the car. On average, using average solar panels, each parking spot covered by solar can create equivalent power to run an EV for 12,000 miles a year.”

Most customers also choose to have charging stations mounted on the carports. “They can either attach them to the beams of the carport, which are easy to attach brackets to, or, if that’s not convenient, they can put them on pedestals in front of the carport,” says Peress.

Charging in a covered location offers several benefits, including some that may not be obvious at first. “Whether we want to believe it or not, at these early stages of electrification, people are still concerned about plugging an electric cable into their car when it’s raining. Plus, in southern areas where there’s a lot of hot sun, it gives shade, which protects the EV and the battery as well. The car’s going to run longer when it’s not been exposed to the islanding, which means heat coming off the pavement, as well as direct sun. It’s also going to need less cooling for the inhabitants of the car.”

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Business is booming. “In the past month, we’ve had more requests for quotes than in the past four years,” Peress tells us. “People are considering the fact that there are 800 million parking spots in North America that could be covered, and that could be generating power. Whereas our focus before was on ground-mount farms or rooftops, the discovery of the opportunity – now that solar has come down in cost, making it more feasible – has made solar carports take off. The electric vehicle angle adds to the whole clean energy mix.”

As it makes the transition from a product installer to a supplier, Renewz is building a network of preferred contractors. “A regular contractor, an electrical contractor, a solar installer – it’s really a plethora of different installers who will be trained by us, and will be able to cover territories, and go out to their clients, and use our web tool to create great presentations for them.”

Renewz has plans to partner with a leasing company, which will offer various financing options that customers will be able to evaluate using the online design tool.

renewz

The retail cost of the units ranges from $16,000 and $30,000. “Contractors, of course, will be able to work with us to get some margin to allow them to afford to market the product,” says Peress.

Renewz sets a good example – all company vehicles are electric, and its Montreal headquarters is powered by 100% renewable energy.

“It’s a misnomer that solar doesn’t work in northern climates,” says Peress. “Because of the angle of the carport, snow will often melt off when the solar panels are heating themselves, when they’re exposed to light. And there’s a rain gutter that protects against drips. So, it’s not just limited to the sunny states – solar and EVs can work across all climates together, you just have to know how to engineer it. That’s one of the strengths of Renewz – having done the projects ourselves, we learned how to do that.”

Envision Solar

Envision Solar, based in San Diego, manufactures and sells solar-powered charging stations under the EV ARC and Solar Tree brand names. Optional features include solar tracking, energy storage and digital advertising packages.

CEO Desmond Wheatley has founded four startup companies, and has experience in such diverse fields as cellular and broadband wireless, defense and renewable energy.

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Envision has seen rapid growth over the last year, signing contracts with major customers such as New York City and the state of California. The company recently signed two contracts in China, and will start to manufacture and sell its products there later this year.

The EV ARC is a portable solar-powered Level 2 charging station that fits in a standard parking space. It comes in two versions: The EV ARC 3 includes a 3.4 kW solar array and 22.5 kWh of on-board energy storage. The EV ARC 4 features two Level 2 chargers, a 4.1 kW array and 30 kWh of storage. For two-wheeled EVs, Envision also offers the EV ARC E-Bike and the EV ARC Moto.

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“The EV ARC is completely autonomous,” explains Wheatley. “It’s not connected to the grid, and it’s not connected to the ground in any way. We deliver it to the site and drop it off in about ten minutes, and it’s ready to charge cars immediately. There’s no building permit required, no foundations or trenching, no planning of any sort. Our customers send us an email, the units show up the next morning, and they have EV charging where they didn’t have it before.”

The larger Solar Trees offer 50 kW DC fast charging, and come in both grid-connected and islanded versions. “We can put DC fast charging into remote locations, like rest areas or anywhere remote where it’s cost-prohibitive to deliver a sufficiently large circuit to support that kind of charging,” says Wheatley. “For example, a rest area may have enough circuits for hand dryers and lights, and maybe a vending machine or two, but they don’t have enough power to service EV charging of any sort – definitely not a great big fat DC fast charger.”

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A typical customer is an organization that has looked at EV charging but been scared off by the costs of trenching, foundations, circuit upgrades and possible utility demand charges. “In many cases, we’ve had customers for whom just the trenching alone would cost far more than the price of our units,” says Wheatley. “Other customers are leasing their property, and they don’t want to leave that infrastructure in the ground if they move.”

Envision works with customers to get the full benefit of available federal and state tax incentives for solar power and energy storage, which can reduce net costs by as much as 40 percent. The company can also bring tax equity investors to the table to further reduce costs. According to Wheatley, in many scenarios Envision’s solutions can equal or beat the costs of traditional grid-tied charging stations, once tax incentives and deployment costs are taken into consideration.

Of course, in many cases, a customer can deploy a typical grid-tied charger less expensively. “If you happen to have a 30-amp circuit somewhere where somebody wants to charge a car, and you plan on staying there, and you’re not worried about increasing energy costs, then our advice is, go ahead and install that EV charger, because you can do that for a few thousand dollars,” says Wheatley. “But once you use up those low-hanging fruits, and you now need to get across your parking lot, and you’re going to have to dig a trench and you’re going to have to do a circuit upgrade – that’s when you call us back.”

Envision has had customers who installed chargers in all their easily accessible locations, but still had demand for more charging spots, and were faced with digging up landscaping or other expensive, disruptive projects to install more. One example is the city of New York, which wanted to deploy EV charging at a location across the street from City Hall. “Because the buildings are older and the circuitry’s older, because you can’t just dig up some of the nicer parts of these historic buildings, we made EV charging possible where it would otherwise be impossible. And that unit’s used every day by the city of New York.”

Unlike a typical solar carport, which supplies energy to the grid when the sun shines, and draws energy from the grid when charging an EV, Envision’s products incorporate battery storage, which makes them independent of the grid. The batteries and electronics are integrated into the structural column of the Solar Tree. “We arrive with this thing pre-engineered and pre-fabricated, and it’s just bolted together on the site.”

Envision Solar

Obviously, for DC fast charging, the storage requirements are large – up to 200 kWh of battery capacity. “That 200 kWh of storage, combined with generation, allows us to deliver up to 700 electric miles per day to EVs,” says Wheatley. “If you need more than that, then you just put two Solar Trees into that location. Anyone that we’ve talked to in any Department of Transportation thinks that 700 e-miles is more than they will need, in the short run.”

“If it turns out that the system starts to become really busy, they can just throw another one in without having to do any circuit planning or any upgrades,” explains Wheatley. “You can plan for that kind of a future using grid-tied charging stations, but you have to do your circuit planning now, and then you have all this extra infrastructure until it’s used, whereas, with us, you can just scale up as you need it. That’s important economically, and it’s important environmentally – I mean, none of us want to see people digging 50-mile trenches to the nearest substation in the desert, to enable DC fast charging, if we can charge from sunlight instead. We don’t dig any holes, there’s no environmental impact on our deployments.”

Like Renewz, Envision has seen a sizable increase in customer interest over the past year, which is now starting to turn into orders.

Envision has two different ways to deliver the EV ARC. ARC Mobility is a custom-built trailer with a hydraulic lift that can pick up the EV ARC, and can be towed behind a pickup truck. It can be operated by a single driver. There’s also a version of the EV ARC that can fit in a standard shipping container. “The EV ARC is bigger than a container, and so we have what we call Transformer ARC,” says Wheatley. “It bows down and falls in on itself, and it can fit inside a container unit, and we can now ship it anywhere in the world. There’s a side benefit from that: instead of just having a 110 mph wind rate, which is what a standard deployed EV ARC has, when it’s bowed down, it loses a lot of its windage, and as a result, will survive hurricane force winds, and will continue to generate and store energy, even in a hurricane.”

 

This article originally appeared in Charged Issue 25 – May/June 2016. Subscribe now.