Recent reports predict that more than 24 million electric vehicles (EVs) will be on U.S. roads by 2030. As more people purchase EVs, there will naturally be a strong demand for more charging stations outside the home — especially in parking lots. Realizing the need to make charging more accessible, leaders in cities such as Portland, Ore. and San Diego are starting to require property owners and managers to add EV charging infrastructure to their existing parking lots.
While municipalities have enacted these mandates to support the rapid trajectory of EVs on the road, there are significant barriers for business owners and leasing agents to install parking lot chargers, making it challenging to achieve the ultimate goal of widespread accessibility.
Solar is an ideal resource for powering EV chargers with clean energy while providing business advantages — from tax credits to appealing to more patrons — but the electrical infrastructure of most parking lots isn’t designed to support such high-load applications. Therefore, lot owners are often burdened with unplanned costs to provide EV charging. Off-grid solar-powered EV charging can alleviate the headaches of grid interconnection while providing additional value to companies that help enable more EV adoption.
Overcoming Problems with Traditional Parking Lots
Parking lots provide plenty of available space for installing solar panels. Making use of the overhead available space for solar panels and coupling that with EV charging technology can be a perfect pairing. However, installing grid-connected solar on parking lots isn’t straightforward. Parking lots are typically constructed without grid power or on an extremely limited grid with a residential-sized meter that’s only adequate to power low-load applications such as ticket machines or security lighting. Grid-connected EV chargers will draw much more power than the existing grid connection of a parking lot can support.
Building out the grid to increase its electrical capacity is an expensive and time-consuming undertaking, with long timelines for utility approvals and delays and engineering for new utility service connections. Furthermore, unlike roof-mounted solar installations, parking lot solar projects require costly steel canopy infrastructure. Some experts estimate that a solar carport is roughly 40% more expensive than a ground mount system due to the extra materials, labor and engineering required to build them. With these challenges, not every business can afford to implement a grid-tied solar solution to keep up with the demand for new EV chargers.
By contrast, off-grid, solar-powered EV chargers can provide many of the same benefits as grid-connected EV chargers, but at much lower cost and with much faster installation timeframes. New technology options, such as pop-up, off-grid solar arrays with batteries and EV chargers, can be set up quickly and moved as needed. These solutions eliminate the need to attach to the utility grid and help avoid lengthy installation delays and excess costs while allowing more flexibility in system location and design.
Off-grid solar-powered EV chargers also enable installation in smaller areas without grid power, such as municipal parking lots near parks or beaches. Providing grid-connected EV chargers in these locations has posed significant challenges due to their usually nonexistent power supply, but off-grid charging provides an affordable, accessible solution in such locations.
Gaining Additional Business Value
Installing off-grid solar-powered chargers not only provides an innovative and practical solution for cities to meet the influx of demand for EV power; it also gives companies and locations that sponsor such stations many advantages. Systems that aren’t reliant on the grid are resilient and can be available during emergencies when the grid may go offline. They both eliminate the risk of outages and can help decrease electricity bills by powering the stations with free solar energy rather than utility power that must be paid for.
Businesses can also benefit by providing a convenient charging solution for EV drivers that demonstrates their commitment to sustainability using 100% clean energy rather than fossil fuel-based utility power. Such initiatives make a positive impression on visitors, clients, employees and city officials, helping to garner positive public relations and enhancing an organization’s reputation.
These advantages are spurring major corporate commitments to install EV charging infrastructure. For example, Walmart is adding thousands of EV chargers to U.S. stores by 2030, planning to own and operate them throughout its national network. With more than 4,700 Walmart stores and 600 Sam’s Clubs located within ten miles of about 90% of Americans, this initiative will make charging much more accessible for many EV drivers.
It’s important to note that while there will be various infrastructure needs to accommodate these corporate commitments to EV charging, the point is there are growing business benefits and this trend is only going to continue as other businesses follow suit.
Chipotle has unveiled an all-electric restaurant concept that relies entirely on renewable energy and includes electric car charging ports and plans to implement elements of its new design at more than 100 locations slated to open in 2024. Subway is also planning to install electric vehicle charging stations at new or newly remodeled Subway locations in the U.S., and 7-Eleven launched its own EV fast-charging network called 7Charge, expanding across Florida, Texas, Colorado, and California so far.
As cities and corporations continue to pursue their goals of reducing carbon emissions and promoting sustainable transportation, the demand for EV charging infrastructure is only set to increase. Off-grid charging provides an innovative and practical solution to help fulfill those commitments using ultra-clean solar power.
‘Lots’ of Potential
As of the early 2000s, parking covered 2% to 5% of U.S. urban land. Spurred by the proliferation of the automobile as Americans’ preferred method of transportation, major cities have been designed around cars, including hundreds of millions of parking spaces. If the U.S. followed a similar push to cover half of its parking space with solar, it would create a tremendous amount of new solar capacity. With governments and corporations working together, there’s an opportunity to capitalize on this latent potential with benefits for all in the transition to the next generation of vehicles.
Tom McCalmont is the CEO and Co-founder of Paired Power, a manufacturer of innovative products that pair solar power with electric vehicle and energy storage technology. He has been a successful entrepreneur and engineer within the solar industry for over two decades and holds a Master’s degree in Electrical Engineering from Stanford University and a Doctorate of Science from Muskingum University.