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Sun shades cool parking lots, pump out solar energy

Posted by: Adam Aston on May 29, 2008

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Add up all the asphalt parking lots surrounding the nation’s malls, offices and commuter hubs, and there’s more than enough blacktop to pave over Connecticut. Envision Solar International hopes to tranform those barren expanses into green-energy oases by erecting forests of “solar trees”. About 12 feet tall, each “tree” is capped with a 1,000 sq-ft canopy covered in solar cells.

Already installed or being built in a handful of California parking areas, Envision’s high-tech sun shades not only make the lots cooler and more comfortable, they generate clean power during daylight hours when it’s most needed. When “planted” in the parking lot of a typical regional shopping mall, a grove of the square-shaped shades can generate up to half a megawatt, enough to power about 500 homes. And since the property owner purchases the power the trees generate over their lifetime, Envision can finance and install them with no additional charge to the owner. In time, the San Diego-based company hopes its solar structures will help fuel tomorrow’s electric cars.


Reader Comments


May 30, 2008 1:05 PM

That's a great idea. If Envision is successful, I hope their next move will be to target the many acres of flat-roofed industrial buildings (like this one) that mostly do nothing other than bake in the sun and create storm water runnoff. Putting solar panels on these roofs wouldn't do much for the runnoff (you'd need to plant them as green roofs for that, which is another good idea that could be mixed with the solar) but all told they add up to an unbelievably large amount of wasted space. These warehouses would have the shade benefits that you talk about for the parking lots, so their A/C demands would also be greatly reduced.

A quick search and back of the envelope calculation of how much area we're talking about: according to this article, the world's largest warehouse owner now controls roughly 241 million square feet of warehouse space, covering roughly (my calculation) 13,412 acres of land. Yowza, now that's a lot of photovoltaic potential!

Pamela Stevens

May 30, 2008 9:18 PM

We at Envision Solar appreciate the recognition and support for our Solar Forestation mission!! A great article! Just one more bit of good news...

The article comments that ......"Putting solar panels on these roofs wouldn't do much for the runnoff (you'd need to plant them as green roofs for that, which is another good idea that could be mixed with the solar."

However, part of the Envision Solar Forestation mission includes capturing stormwater run-off in gutters or pervious concrete areas and directing it to a bio-swale.

Again, thanks for the support!!

Brad Currier

June 5, 2008 3:30 PM

I wonder if a version of those sun shades could be developed to work as a patio cover? I sure wouldn't mind a patio cover that served double duty shading my patio and giving me free energy.


June 7, 2008 8:25 PM

i have heard this before. (anecdotally) that installing solar panels on your roof will reduce your power consumption simply by being there. shading your roof, reducing your heat gain, even breaking the wind in the winter.

i still like the shade of a good tree though. chirping birds and fluttering butterflies don't tend to gather in the cells of a solar panel.

Bhupesh Patel

June 16, 2008 1:41 AM

Great idea and product. I wish some of these companies would look at introducing their energy saving and clean energy generating products in India, more so in view of the American President's recent statement about oil prices going up BECAUSE of increased consumption and subsidies in India and China. We have ample solar energy for almost 9 months a year and companies, institution, and individuals do take great pride in being energy conscious in India.

Kent Fairfield

July 2, 2008 11:17 AM

I love the use of unused surface area to generate solar power, cooler parking, and even thoughtful storm water runoff (and "pervious" concrete -- we have far too much impervious surface in this country and I'm glad to know there's a word that means the opposite -- thanks, Pamela).


July 6, 2008 11:52 PM

And you would not have to walk to your car in the rain

Diane Alter

July 7, 2008 12:10 PM

Reminds me of a solar company in Utah called Ciralight that vitually eliminates the need for electric lighting in the daytime. Solar lighting has so much potential for so many. The word need to get out so that the natural light can get through.

Kristy H.

July 15, 2008 2:03 AM

I'm embarrassed to say, I'm not very knowledgeable on this topic, but this sounds like another great idea: but why isn't it being talked more about? Why are these great ideas not on the news to help provide energy for us? I hope this idea gets out soon so things can start looking more positive and not so negitive.

Steven McQ

July 25, 2009 7:35 PM

The single pole design seems most suited to locations with little real weather, like San Diego. I wonder how well it would fare with high wind loading and snow.


August 26, 2009 10:05 PM

I think this is a great idea. Using wasted space for green energy seems so obvious that I'm amazed it hasn't been thought of before. Although, I feel the need to ask, why use the photovoltaic panels? I thought we had developed a more efficient way of generating solar energy with the use of semi-transparent films, or is that still just a work in progress?

Mr. Mann

August 26, 2009 11:08 PM

Here in Georgia, I was thinking golf-ball sized hail and high winds.. ???


August 26, 2009 11:23 PM

Not to put a great idea down but like others have said a single pole to keep up those solar trees would need to be very strong in many different situations.I could see a lawsuit creeping up eventually when one of these things break over someones car. I love the idea to reclaim barren parking lots It has a great benefit of creating shade. I hate having a blistering hot car when getting out of a nice cool mall.

Bradly F

August 26, 2009 11:29 PM

@Steven McQ - I'm in Missouri and we most certainly get high winds, heavy rain, and high snow and even ice loads. A single pole might not work but 2 polls should as most gas station canopies of simmilar size only have 2 polls. 2 polls wouldn't change this design much at all really.

Bring this to the mid-west. If we want all electric cars and the national infrastructure to make it work then we have to make it work in Missouri, Iowa, Kansas, etc to make it happen. Win over people here and its a done deal.


August 27, 2009 1:23 AM

To person talking about birds chirping and shit....ITS A PARKING LOT...generally birds arent attracted to CONCRETE to begin with...moron

Amatoc Industries

August 27, 2009 1:49 AM

This is a very cool idea. I do agree with Steven McQ that under the weight of alot of snow or high winds there is a potential for failure of the structure.
I obviously do not have the details of the materials and construction, but purely from a visual standpoint that stands out

Raffaele Pingue

August 27, 2009 4:31 AM

Bellissima idea, incredibile... se tutti i centri commerciali usassero una soluzione del genere, quanta energia risparmiata....

mad keet

August 27, 2009 4:37 AM

Fantastic idea, regarding snow coverage maybe they'll incorporate heating coils to melt the snow into pervious areas and run offs. gets my vote anyway.


August 27, 2009 6:35 AM

I live in Sunnyvale Cal. They are in the process of installing these on homestead Rd. at the high school parking lot there. I am watching this project eagerly, as I have been waiting for this tech forever. Solar is where its at for Cali. Always look forward.


August 27, 2009 7:25 AM

Using this in combination with the wireless electricy (WiTricity) to charge electric cars would be simply incredible

Uncle B

August 27, 2009 7:34 AM

And large scale subterranean civilizations under desert sands at solar installations! Is mankind avoiding cancer causing rays? will he show his true color? Will it be pale? Long before oil runs out, it will price itself off the market and we will adapt with technologies and arrive at an oil-free society in spite of the Iraqi adventure and the Afghanistan/
Turkmenistan murder spree by the U.S. military on behalf of Halliburton(Saudi Arabia) True, we enjoy the Military jobs, the Military research development, the Military manufacturing work, and the Strategic sense of security it gives us in the world, and it does offer selective breeding by getting rid of uneducated souls by death in combat, a win-win for America, but against what is to come from Asia we appear as a mosquito on an elephants back attempting rape! With Nuclear deterrents in place, all this energy can be diverted to the betterment of conditions on earth for mankind, selective, computer controlled, DNA guided, breeding of a Super Human race, Space exploration, Arts Music, Science and even greater technologies! The world was conquered with the discovery of the A-bomb, now, we must scourge the earth of the inferior breeds by safe biological means,like AIDS and prepare to evolve into the space travelers from whence we came, and populate the Universe with our improved species, and stop thinking small, and show the "Force" to the world once again!


August 27, 2009 10:37 AM

located on Laurel Canyon, immediately south of the 101 which is undertaking a school expansion in the near future.


August 27, 2009 11:43 AM

Would be great if you could also charge your car electricity in the mall parking lot with those solar panels :P

Auntie A

August 27, 2009 12:02 PM

Uncle B . . . do you mean to say something or are you just rattling on for the joy of the words?

Dr Pete Sut

August 27, 2009 12:32 PM

Looks like a great idea. How would these panels and "trees" hold up in northern climates under heavy snow loads. Could they be angled slightly and generate enough heat for snow to slide off (perhaps sacrificing a few parking spaces)/\/\/\?

bill johnson

August 27, 2009 1:03 PM

Industrial and commercial flat roofs are a great place for solar. The solar panels shield the roof from heat and reduce air conditioning cost. We developed a system over 10 years ago to eliminate the need to remove the roof top equipment prior to the installation of the panels. We still have resistance from corporations that do not want to get with the program. Acceptance and attitude have as much to do with using solar energy as technological advancement does. If the public, ie. customers, would ask shopping centers, etc. if they use solar energy there would be change.

Jamie P

August 27, 2009 2:01 PM

Dr Pete:

I was just wondering the same thing. Unless it is a large accumulation or cold conditions for a few days in a row, snow *should* just melt off. But if it is a large accumulation, angling them would be a good choice. BUT like you have stated, the parking spaces would be sacrificed, and i'm sure lawsuits from damaged cars or injured people, might deter angling. Is it possible to use some of the stored energy to melt the snow into water, and then have almost like a gutter/drainage system to collect the water? i may be getting ahead of the technology, (or the bottom line purpose of saving energy) for this to work. But it certainly is interesting to see these kinds of ideas at work.

I have 2 more comments.

1) Since America IS a world leader (im a Canadian), why is Obama not making America a world leader in clean/green/renewable energy? I know there is no logistics behind this idea i am about to say, but just think about it...
---> If America switches over to green shift in energy, then wouldnt there still be jobs in these fields, perhaps creating mroe jobs: R&D of green energy, production in factories to make the tech, shipping of the tech, home installations, maintanence, stores selling the tech, etc. I see a lot of job opportunities. Why or why America, do you continue to wait and to look into more oil endeavors!? Please, the world needs you to make this shift into green energies!!

2) Uncle B: What the heck are you talking about?



August 27, 2009 2:52 PM

This is the most brilliant idea I have ever seen. I'm 19 from Detroit and definitely strive to one day assist in energy planning such as this. I can't even begin to think how many jobs would arise in Michigan with something like this. I would be concerned however with snow being an issue. All in all, stumbled onto this article and am just impressed :) It's things like these that make my future look a bit brighter(and cleaner!) -Lu


August 27, 2009 2:55 PM

The snow thing: Couldn't a small amount of the energy captured be diverted back to the panels so they could be slightly heated. Since they would be useless when snow covered it could be worth it.?
Just a thought.
Pamela- do you put this electricity on the grid or can it go directly to the customer during times of peak usage?(I understand you would need to develop some mechanism to collect the revenue.) If it does go on the grid and is then resold at an inflated cost there is no real benefit financially for the client that has it. Obviously green is awesome but most corporations care about the other kind of green...
I personally don't like the idea that the utility companies who are unwilling to invest in clean energy could profit from this,it reduces their incentive to take these steps on their own. If a private company could do this and show a profit so could they.


August 27, 2009 4:21 PM

August 27, 2009 01:23 AM

To person talking about birds chirping and shit....ITS A PARKING LOT...generally birds arent attracted to CONCRETE to begin with...moron"

If you'd bother to read before shooting your mouth off, you'd have noticed that schadenfreudisch was making a comment, partially in response to Brad Currier, about panels on patio awnings and the roofs of homes. In this case, such a comment about birds chirping "and shit" is quite appropriate. Your own comment, however, was not, even had you read correctly.

Moron, indeed.

As for the article, I would love to see these popping up in more places. I would even be willing to put one over my carport, if it would save me a bit of money, but unfortunately, since a carport, or any sort of residential roof surface area is too small to make a huge impact right away (for the individual user, at least) it will probably be a while before we see them become more mainstream. That being said, if I could afford it, I would do it.

August 27, 2009 5:12 PM

so many GREAT comments and suggestions! But there are concerns like dust/dirt/bird poop/dried snow...

HEY! how about... self charging Roomba who's sole purpose is to clean it 24/7 ?

Hey iRobot people.. you listening!!!???

August 27, 2009 5:24 PM

Also, you could make the ground piezoelectric to make electricity as car roll over them. Consider small thin speed bump strips all over the lot filled with piezoelectric. All of this connected to battery to charge EV cars but moreover those BRIGHT parking lot that sucks a LOT of power, now, completely self sufficient! While we're at it: how about using the extra electricity to ozone clean the air!

August 27, 2009 5:30 PM

Also!! another idea....

Using induction charging!! so the bottom of EV's have the induction charging coils! so you don't have to even plug it in!!! it charges simply because you're in the space!!!

August 27, 2009 5:36 PM

And speaking about piezo and the mini speed bumps... gosh.. consider if public streets have them? If anything to charge batteries for street lamps and stoplights? Can you imagine the amount of power generated with 4,000 vehicles going over it every sec of every day?!? Not to mention, for cars even!!! put piezo in tires to charge batteries!!! Hey.. I'm going to patent that!!

Sergio Sánchez, Mexico City

August 27, 2009 8:02 PM

Wonderful idea, congratulations. This kind of projects are both inspiring and encouraging.

Is Envision in the stock market?

I'd bet my money on you guys, no second thoughts.

August 27, 2009 9:47 PM

If snow is a concern, how about the panels having just enough energy to kick off a heating devise that melts the snow as it's snowing?

Other wise, great, great, great idea. I hope this gathers momentum and then some! :o)


August 27, 2009 10:17 PM

I'm always searching for a good solar idea, but I'm careful to do the arithmetic on how cost effective it is. The first calculation is electricity production - the article says "in the parking lot of a typical regional shopping mall, a grove of the square-shaped shades can generate up to half a megawatt, enough to power about 500 homes". I'm assuming half a megwatt is only produced in the middle of a sunny day. The rule of thumb over a year is that one only gets 5 hours of solar production per day, on average, depending what part of the world it's in. So half a megawatt for 5 hours is 2500 kilowatt-hours per day. My home uses about 30 kWh per summer day without the air conditioner running. So the solar array won't produce enough electricity for 500 houses like mine; it will only produce enough electricity for 83 houses like mine, which is about 17% of the estimate in the article.
The next bit of arithmetic determines the payback of the array over time. Where I live, electricity from the grid costs about 14c/kWh, taxes and all. So the array is producing 2500kWh/day, which is about $350 worth of electricity each day. Take a reasonable payback time; let's say 7 years. To break even, the cost of the installation would have to be under $350/day times 365 days time 7 years = $895,000. If you purchase a solar collector these days, you'll pay about $6 per watt (that's retail, so wholesale might be somewhat lower). For a half megawatt solar collector (not including the mounting poles), you'd therefore pay $3Million. I'd love to think that Envision can produce solar collectors for under $2/watt, and if they can, I'd encourage everyone to buy shares. But unless my calculations are wrong, this idea is just too darn expensive. I applaud Envision for offering to pick up the tab for the installation, but has anyone at Envision actually estimated what it's going to cost the company? How do they expect to make a profit?

Arianna Rajabi

August 27, 2009 10:40 PM

I LOVE IT! Great idea, I live in some hick town right outside of Georgia and my city is not doing very much for the environment...I wish we had these here especially in the Florida sun!


August 27, 2009 11:27 PM

Piezo based speed bumps will still slow a car due to increased friction and non-zero elevation changes (despite popular miscomprehension that the surface would remain identical with common pavement).

Inductively created magnetic attraction will slow the vehicles as well.

Slowing any vehicle means you are making a driver press the accelerator in order to move the car, and the fuel use is funded by the driver of the car. That, IMO, constitutes petty theft - forcing my vehicle to perform work to surrender energy for your benefit.

I'm loving the solar cells over the parking lot idea, good use of technology. Well, until vandals arrive. Therefore, these installations will probably be only made in gated or protected areas.

Nadine McGee

August 27, 2009 11:48 PM


Pete Scargill

August 28, 2009 1:28 AM

iRobot 24 hours... erm, maybe at night - not during the day when the panel is collecting light!

Also angling the panel might be good for getting rid of snow/water.. and I agree, one support is a bit risky...


August 28, 2009 12:50 PM

Spuffler makes a good point that induction will require a vehicle to work harder over that section of road -- it's not free. A better place to use that kind of energy generation would be on the bottom portion of steep hills. The induction would generate energy while at the same time slowing the car -- being even better than free (from the driver's point of view), by saving the car's brakes.


August 28, 2009 2:27 PM

They have these installed at several parking lots around where I live in the SF Bay Area. Great Idea :)


August 28, 2009 4:38 PM

I can't even imagine seeing these in the real world unless the taxpayer gets the bill.

Most businesses cannot even cost justify putting real trees in their parking lots.

These things would need regular maintenance and if there was a weather event or earthquake, it would be a deathtrap.

Ryan Russell

August 28, 2009 8:30 PM

I had the idea of putting these on roads, streets and highways. There are millions of ample miles of pavement that can collect photon power instead of heat. And driving would be safer during inclement weather as the road is sheltered from rain, ice, and snow.


August 29, 2009 12:24 AM

Actually the robots cleaning the panels would be BETTER at night, therefor not blocking the sun during the day :)

Dean of Green

August 29, 2009 12:44 AM

I run a green event company where we educate employees on how to have a greener lifestyle. I can see from most of these posts that we have a lot of education to do. Most people don't realize that Maine has been an early pioneer in solar electricity generation. Maine!! Enough said. Every comment about "real world" application being unreasonable or too costly or being a "death trap" are so far from the truth that I realize the solar industry has done a poor job of educating the public about how cost effective and maintenance free solar really is. For a good overview on the real ROI go to:


August 29, 2009 11:08 AM

How encouraging to read how people can cogitate for the common good.
How about adding "eye lids" for the lenses which close when they "sense" hail, snow? Grid battery packs should store enough energy to melt snow. If the panels could (within reason) follow the sun like flowers do, rain and snow would run off as it arrived. The remaining piles could be removed like the normally are, by plows.


August 29, 2009 7:27 PM

I agree with Jon,
Seems to me many entities trying to make business with wrong estimate.I would believe that %30 is true.


August 30, 2009 4:03 AM

I love these. Very unhappy because they are not in Sri Lanka.


August 30, 2009 12:49 PM

Is anyone aware of how much grant support (from taxpayers) Envision receives. I'll wager it is not small. Though I like the idea, at first glance, many of these green energy projects cannot touch oil and nuclear energy, without a lot of taxpayer support.

I suggest readers seriously consider the point made by Jon
August 27, 2009 10:17 PM

Taxpayer support serves to misrepresent actual costs of all sorts of 'green' projects. Robbing Peter to help Paul's green dream is a greedy rationalization against everyone taxed. The taxpayers may have perfectly excellent uses for their own money, yet their money is taken to sustain a project that cannot stand on its own merits.

This moral and economic 'green-greed' has far reaching effects, because there will be other less-glamorous, unfunded ideas that might be economic, which must now compete with and lose to the funded projects.


August 30, 2009 10:13 PM

Hi, Congratulations to the R & D team at Envision. You have innovated on an idea which requires economical valuations!
If I may add to the benefits of the solar energy system, the problem of carbon emission-green-house effect-increase in global temperature-melting down of the snow cap; change in eco-system; loss in food chain; those are some of the intangible costs which make up the equation. Weighing the pros and cons,the computer software program can help alleviate the calculations or simulations. When there is a will there will be a way.Try and try, keep on trying,never say die!The goal is in sight. Cheers!One up for Envision team, keep it up.


September 2, 2009 11:54 PM

Solar Trees! Great idea indeed. Generating revenue while prolonging the life of our planet.

Eric Layton

September 9, 2009 8:47 PM

Great ideas! I do find this to be a good idea for shade for vehicles and for producing electricity. This will also have a small effect on the cooler vehicles- cars will not have to use as much energy to cool a vehicle during hot days. Providing electricity for electric vehicles is also an additional benefit, so I fully support this solar panel project.


September 10, 2009 6:23 AM

I would be pleased in helping to bring all this technology to Brazil.

tommy james

September 11, 2009 12:16 AM

its a great..


September 24, 2009 1:06 PM

10 cent tax on gas, all proceeds go to erecting these structures.

Pays off in the long run as we transition off of gasoline, rather than waiting for another huge price spike when the economy finally heats up again.


October 26, 2009 10:05 AM

I love this... then very helpful and friendly from the sunlight, save more electricity, tap the water flow and without the gas, oil.... :)like mirrors and glasses.... so excellect and good ideas...

Adam Aston

October 26, 2009 11:21 AM

Treehugger is reporting that the Dell HQ in Roundrock, Tex. has installed a 130 kW solar "grove", complete with plug in charging stations for electric cars.

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