A solar carport is a photon-capturing canopy covering a parking area. While they have some things in common with traditional carports and ground-mounted solar arrays, solar carports have distinct advantages over both.
If you're interested in solar energy and own a car, read on to decide whether a solar carport system is a smart investment for you.
What Is a Solar Carport?
Solar carports are increasingly popular for charging electric vehicles (EVs) in public and private parking areas. The potential for installing solar carport structures is huge: One study estimates that 14-20% of cities' total surface area is covered in parking lots. Imagine the energy that could be harnessed by installing solar carports and canopies in these otherwise wasted spaces. As a plus, solar carports and solar canopies offer protection from UV light and precipitation and provide convenient charging stations for EVs.
But solar carports aren't just for EV charging. They can also provide energy to be pumped into nearby businesses, homes or the local utility grid. Solar carports produce just as much energy as standard roof-mounted solar power systems — and then some. Roof-mounted systems have to work with the angle of the roof and potential shading obstructions like chimneys, trees and nearby structures. A solar carport, on the other hand, can be oriented at optimal angles to take full advantage of the sunshine.
How Solar Carports Work
Solar carports use the same technology to generate solar energy as a typical ground-mounted or rooftop system. Like ground or roof-mounted solar panels, a solar carport converts the energy of photons (light particles) into electricity, a process called the photovoltaic effect. When a photon hits a solar panel, its energy causes electrons to flow throughout the solar cells, producing an electric current.
The resulting electricity is direct current (DC) power, which is commonly used in battery-operated devices. For household or commercial use, this current is converted into alternating current (AC) with an inverter.
Though solar carports utilize the same technology as other solar configurations, they offer several key benefits. First, solar carports require zero additional land, taking advantage of wasted real estate above a parking space. Second, because solar carports are installed higher than ground-mounted systems, they allow optimal orientation to get the most of the sun's rays.
Solar carports offer a more efficient and unobtrusive way to gather energy from the sun when compared to ground-mounted systems. If space is an issue for your home or business, a solar carport is a great way to cash in on clean energy in the most efficient way possible.
Solar Panel Carport Cost
Like rooftop or ground-mounted solar, solar carport costs vary depending on the type of solar panel you choose, how much power you want to generate, how much space you want to cover and more.
A commercial solar carport, for example, usually spans one to three rows of vehicles, with many spanning as many as a dozen or more. Commercial solar carports almost always require steel construction, a further cost to installation. But while they come with multimillion-dollar price tags, they also provide multimillion-dollar benefits.
A residential solar carport, on the other hand, is much smaller and cheaper to construct than a large commercial unit. However, on average, they are more expensive than installing a full home solar system. This may be due to the increased labor and materials required for installation.
That said, solar carports also produce more energy than rooftop systems, as they can be designed to maximize sun exposure.
It's impossible to provide a precise figure on residential solar carport costs, but most 5kWh solar carports generally run between $18,000 to $25,000 out-the-door, without factoring in any federal or state rebates that can lower costs.
Saving Money on Your Solar Carport
Homeowners who install a solar carport are eligible for the federal solar tax credit, which is currently valued at 26% of the system's installation cost.
Solar Carport Installation
Unless you're a skilled builder and electrician who can tackle a DIY solar panel job, installing a solar carport is best left to the pros. Solar carports are growing in popularity every year, so the number of reputable installers are meeting demand, and most top solar companies can install solar carports.
It's important to note that a solar carport is more like a taller ground-mounted solar system than it is a standard carport — instead of building a carport structure and adding panels to the roof, the panels themselves make up the roof.
Another thing to be aware of is that some homeowners associations might not allow solar carports. Be sure to check with your HOA and obtain all necessary permits from local building agencies before getting started on your installation.
Solar Panel Carport Vs. Rooftop Solar
Rooftop solar is the cheapest option for generating electricity, but for many homeowners, space, angle and obstructions present significant obstacles to getting enough solar energy out of their rooftops. Furthermore, ground-mount systems may be out of the question for homes and businesses pressed for space. In both of these scenarios, a solar carport is a viable alternative.
But solar carports aren't just a last resort for those who can't install ground or rooftop systems — they actually can make more sense. As stated above, solar carports offer greater flexibility for optimal orientation of solar panels, and they utilize an otherwise wasted space.
Problems of roof angle, shading, orientation and size are axed with solar carports, because the solar panels themselves function as the roof. Solar carport support structures are purposefully designed to provide optimal exposure to sunlight, an option most roofs can't provide.
Another advantage is that, if a roof needs work before a rooftop solar system has expired, there's an added cost associated with removing and reinstalling the system while the roof is worked on. With a solar carport, roofing issues are of no concern.
Standard carports protect vehicles against sunlight, wind, rain and snow. Keeping a car shaded during storage actually improves the vehicle's fuel economy because of the reduced need to blast the air conditioning to cool the vehicle down upon entry. A solar carport provides these benefits and more: While keeping a car protected, it's also pumping out clean electricity for a home or business.
For many homeowners, the decision will come down to price. You can get started with cost comparisons by filling out the form below to get a free, no-obligation quote from a top solar installer near you.
Frequently Asked Questions: Solar Carports
Are solar carports worth it?
The greater efficiency of solar carports makes them a tempting option for homes and businesses alike, especially for those with rooftop or ground space constraints. If you value a cleaner, more comfortable car, snow-free windshields and the added benefit of renewable energy to boot, a solar carport is one of the best multi-purpose infrastructure upgrades money can buy.
Can I put solar on my carport?
Existing carports may be able to support solar panels, but they will likely run into the same problems a rooftop-mounted system would. An existing carport has a set roof pitch and wasn't designed with solar placement in mind. Furthermore, it might not be load-bearing. To get the most solar potential out of your parking space, it's best to invest in a dedicated solar carport.
How many solar panels do I need for a carport?
The average household requires 400 to 700 square feet of solar installation to provide its energy needs. The number of solar panels you need for a carport will depend on how much energy you need. Solar carports can be designed to provide all or some of your home's energy needs.
How do solar carports work?
Solar carports work in the same fashion rooftop or ground-mounted systems do: Solar panels absorb photons from the sun and convert them into usable electrons, which are sent to an inverter and converted to AC electricity for use on the grid. Where solar carports really shine is in their multi-purpose nature, providing clean energy while simultaneously protecting your car and saving space.
Why are solar panel carports popular for commercial buildings?
Commercial parking lots are typically very large spaces, which provide a great opportunity for solar energy production. Many commercial buildings and developers offer electric vehicle (EV) charging, and solar carports and canopies over commercial parking lots offer a great way to offset charging costs and provide perks for employees.
Plus, because solar carports usually produce more energy than EVs need, the surplus energy can be used to further offset energy costs in the building or sold back to energy providers via net metering programs. Furthermore, solar carports for commercial parking lots can channel water and snow accumulation away from parking lots, making them safer and easier to maintain.
Christian Yonkers is a writer, photographer, filmmaker, and outdoor junkie obsessed with the intersectionality between people and planet. He partners with brands and organizations with social and environmental impact at their core, assisting them in telling stories that change the world.