Science Energy What Is a Solar Canopy? Definition, Effectiveness, and Examples Solar canopies provide clean energy and support climate resilience By Autumn Spanne Autumn Spanne Writer Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism University of California, Santa Cruz Western New Mexico University Autumn is an independent journalist and educator who writes about climate, biodiversity, and sustainability, as well as environmental justice and policy. Learn about our editorial process Updated October 10, 2021 Fact checked by Elizabeth MacLennan Fact checked by Elizabeth MacLennan University of Tennessee Elizabeth MacLennan is a fact checker and expert on climate change. Learn about our fact checking process Courtesy of Pvilion Share Twitter Pinterest Email Energy Renewable Energy Fossil Fuels Solar canopies generally do two things: Provide shelter and generate solar energy with photovoltaic panels. They are becoming more common as features of commercial properties, transportation infrastructure, recreation areas, and agriculture. This article looks at specific types and uses, considers their effectiveness, and highlights several notable solar canopies around the world. Uses for Solar Canopies Courtesy of Pvilion From parks and parking lots to farms and green roofs, solar canopies cover a lot of ground. Parking Lots and Service Stations Parking lot canopies not only generate energy but protect vehicles from the intense heat generated by direct sun, and from rain, hail, and snow. Facilities with expansive outdoor parking lots like airports, shopping centers, hospitals, amusement parks, and sports stadiums are well-suited to solar parking canopies, which in turn help meet their energy needs. Service stations are starting to feature solar canopies as well. Most service stations already shelter gas pumps with a protective canopy, so upgrading to solar is a logical move. In addition, the PV panels can directly power electric vehicle charging points. Bus Shelters and Train Stations A lot of city bus stops and train stations are getting solar upgrades. San Francisco, for example, has installed hundreds of grid-connected solar bus shelters. Panels can power LED safety lighting, charging outlets, digital displays, and even speakers for visually impaired passengers. All of these features save money for transportation agencies. Rooftops Roofs represent a fifth to a quarter of the total urban surface area, so converting more roofs to solar can go a long way toward cutting emissions. But not everyone wants traditional rooftop solar installations that may interfere with other uses. Solar canopies open up opportunities for social uses like parties and meeting space. Green roofs also pair well with these canopies as plants that prefer shadier environments can be grown beneath them. Agrivoltaics Crops and solar panels might not seem like a natural pairing, but they can complement each other well. Agrivoltaic systems place rows of solar panels in crop fields, providing shade for plants that don’t thrive in constant, direct sunlight, while plants that crave sun go between the panel rows. Studies show that the shaded areas can significantly reduce water consumption by slowing evaporation, and may increase crop yields. Agrivoltaics also extend to solar greenhouses. Effectiveness Solar canopies are quite an effective means of generating energy, contributing to the reduction of the urban heat island effect. Pavements represent a significant portion of a city’s surface area, so there’s real potential to cool down cities and generate clean electricity if more paved surfaces were covered in solar. A 2011 solar parking lot at Rutgers University demonstrates this: The installation, built over existing lots, produces about eight megawatts of power, which meets 63% of the energy demand on the university’s Livingston campus. Another multi-site solar parking initiative in Massachusetts estimates the 37-site project will reduce emissions by nearly 29,000 metric tons annually—the equivalent of 30.8 million pounds of coal burned. Solar canopies create more options for decentralized energy production, which helps avoid massive grid failures and dangerously disruptive power outages. As these extreme events become more common, decentralized, self-contained solar systems help build climate resilience. Their shade provides additional benefits. Solar parking canopies help drivers save on fuel costs by keeping cars cool and reducing the need to blast the AC, cutting greenhouse gas emissions. So why aren’t solar canopies more common? The main drawback is cost. A Vermont study found that the cost of a solar canopy parking lot there was typically about 30% higher than an open field ground mount racking system. Canopies can also be harder to maintain in regions with abundant snow and strong winds. But costs vary considerably depending on state incentives. States that offer attractive incentives have seen stronger growth in solar parking canopies. As more solar canopies pop up, overall prices should continue to drop as they have in other solar sectors. Examples Future solar canopy investors and planners can examine and learn from the following models. Euro Disney Solar Parking Euro Disney is constructing one of the largest solar canopy systems in Europe, slated for completion in 2023. The canopies will cover nearly a thousand parking spaces and power 17% of the resort while avoiding 750 tons of C02 emissions annually. Total Energy Service Stations In 2016, Total Energy announced it would begin converting its service stations to feature rooftop solar systems. The company currently powers more than a thousand of its stations with solar canopies and plans to expand that number to 5,000 in 57 countries—about 30% of the total network. New York Botanical Garden Pavilions Courtesy of Pvilion Solar-powered pavilions now provide visitors to the New York Botanical Garden a place to rest and recharge their electronic devices. The eight arching canopies are made by Pvilion, a Brooklyn-based solar company that designs fabric with embedded photovoltaic cells. The pavilions are easy to install and show how solar canopies can be both functional and elegant. An Integrated Green Roof System Generating shade and energy are just the beginning of what a solar canopy should do, according to the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences in Vienna, also known as BOKU. A green system demonstration project on the BOKU roof terrace features a series of photovoltaic pergola modules covered with solar panels and filled with plants and raised beds. The integrated system also collects rainwater and provides a pleasant outdoor event and meeting space. India's Irrigation Canals India’s agricultural regions are fed by irrigation canals traversing thousands of miles—an untapped opportunity for solar development. A lightweight suspension solar system designed by Colorado-based solar company P4P now provides an affordable way for these canals to generate carbon-free power. The canopy system can span a canal up to 100 meters (328 feet) wide. Importantly, its shade helps prevent evaporation of precious irrigation water in this drought-prone region, reinforcing climate resiliency. View Article Sources Alshayeb, Mohammed and Jae D. Chang. "Photovoltaic Energy Variations Due to Roofing Choice." Procedia Engineering, vol. 145, 2016, pp. 1104-1109., doi:10.1016/j.proeng.2016.04.143 Adeh, Elnaz Hassanpour, et al. "Remarkable Agrivoltaic Influence on Soil Moisture, Micrometeorology and Water-Use Efficiency." PLOS ONE, vol. 13, no. 11, 2018, pp. e0203256., doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0203256 Masson, Valery, et al. "Solar Panels Reduce Both Global Warming and Urban Heat Island." Frontiers in Environmental Science, vol. 2, 2014., doi:10.3389/fenvs.2014.00014 "Solar Canopies: Parking Lots and Garages." Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. Nik, Vahid M., et al. "Towards Climate Resilient Urban Energy Systems: A Review." National Science Review, vol. 8, no. 3, 2021, pp. nwaa134., doi:10.1093/nsr/nwaa134 "Fuel Economy in Hot Weather." U.S. Department of Energy. Seddon, Leigh. "Vermont Solar Cost Study: A Report on Photovoltaic System Cost and Performance Differences Based on Design and Siting Factors." CleanEnergy States Alliance, 2016.