A Johnny Appleseed for Solar "Trees" and "Groves"

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | May 25, 2010

Envision's solar grove at Dell headquarters in Texas. (Credit: Envision Solar)
Envision's solar grove at Dell headquarters in Texas. (Credit: Envision Solar)

I live along the Metro North rail line to New York, and on frequent trips into Manhattan I walk across the acres of baking asphalt that is my station's parking lot and wonder why it couldn't be doing something more useful than warehousing gas guzzlers.

Let's face it, cars (like dogs, for that matter) spend more than 90 percent of their time sitting around waiting. They could be doing something useful in those parking lots--like charging their electric motors from emission-free solar. Working as part of my town's Clean Energy Task Force (which has itself put up a bunch of solar panels), I'd like to help make it happen for our commuters, so EVs could be quietly charging while car owners are at work.

I wish I'd thought of solar parking lot charging--but if I had money-making ideas I probably wouldn't be a blogger (or working for Car Talk, for that matter). Instead, a company called Envision Solar took the concept and ran with it, adding an imaginative dimension: A solar charging station in a parking lot is like a tree in a barren field, they said, so let's call them "trees," and when a bunch are clustered together they're a "grove."

Groves have been planted all over the place (Dell headquarters, Chevron Energy, Sun Edison, a McDonald's outlet), spread by a Johnny Appleseed named Bob Noble. An architect, Noble's firm was hired to design solar car ports by Japanese giant Kyocera, which makes photovoltaic panels. Noble looked around, discovered that nobody was making anything of the sort, and started from scratch. And now he's taken the company public.

The grove at Dell's headquarters in Texas (11 solar trees, 56 spaces) generates 100 kilowatts and avoids the emission of 221,000 pounds of carbon dioxide every year. At the Pacific Beach McDonald's in San Diego, 14-kilowatt electric charging comes with that Big Mac.

Kyocera's Solar Grove was opened in 2005 with 25 "solar trees," which transformed its boring 186-vehicle North American headquarters parking lot in San Diego into a 235-kilowatt solar array. And Noble was so inspired by the process--and the sight of America's vast inventory of parking lot space--that he founded the fast-growing Envision Solar in 2007. "Parking lots offer a vast amount of square footage," Noble said. "There's a lot of solar exposure, and the potential for weather protection." There's even a proposal for a grove at the Dallas Cowboys stadium. Take a look at this video:

The beauty of this concept is that not only does your EV get charged, it also gets shaded--no more struggling with one of those cardboard windshield screens! The big, flat expanses are also ideal for solar because there are not trees to get in the way. From a 220-volt outlet, most current EVs will be charged in five or six hours, and they'll be ready for another 100 miles or so. The availability of public charging like this (in addition to similar outlets at work) will do a lot to ease the nail-biting fear known as "range anxiety"--will my car end up arriving home on the end of a tow rope?

The potential is really enormous, especially if companies think as big as Applied Materials, a Silicon Valley manufacturer of semiconductors and LCD displays. Applied's solar charging installation is 2.1 megawatts, enough electricity to charge 1,000 cars with two kilowatts.

This idea is spreading, and it's by no means limited to parking lots. If large numbers of urban cars are going to get charged, they'll need plugs in parking garages, and that's starting to happen in New York--in apartment complexes as well as garage chains. A multi-tier garage in New Haven, Connecticut, recently put in a charger (next to the neon sculptures), and a huge Propark America municipal garage in nearby New London (once the center of the whaling industry) is looking at a rooftop solar-connected layout. The University of California at San Diego has solar charging on the top deck of its garage.

New Haven's Neon Garage offers EV charging (and neon sculptures). (Credit: Neon Garage)
New Haven's Neon Garage offers EV charging (and neon sculptures). (Credit: Neon Garage)

Joe Celli, whose previous experience is as a musician and arts administrator, is now trying to plug in that New London parking garage. "We're also talking about small wind generators that can be attached to the ledge of the building," he told me. "We think it might be possible to operate the whole facility off the renewable energy from the roof, and even put electricity back into the grid."

All this sounds too good, right? There must be some kind of catch. Actually, no. The solar chargers can be grid-connected, which means that in states with what's called "net metering" they can sell electricity back to the utilities when no car is connected.

And that possibility of a revenue stream raises the possibilities that towns like mine can find someone to install chargers on spec if we let them make money off the generated electricity. Solar charging with no money down! I dunno, it works for me.

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