The ‘Carportunity’: How our electric vehicle future means big things for solar carports

California’s Franchise Tax Board complex

Electric vehicles taking over the road is no longer a question. Sales of plug-in hybrid electric vehicles and all-electric vehicles have surged recently. So now the question is where are all of these things going to get their juice?

A new study from the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) quantifies how much charging infrastructure would be needed in the United States to support various market growth scenarios for plug-in electric vehicles (PEVs). NREL notes that most PEV charging occurs at home, but widespread PEV adoption would require the development of a national network of non-residential charging stations. Strategically installing these stations early would maximize their economic viability while enabling efficient network growth as the PEV market matures. NREL says about 8,000 fast-charging stations would be needed to provide a minimum level of urban and rural coverage nationwide.

No one asked us, but we think carport developments have a big opportunity (a carportunity!) to lead the way. The segment is seeing notable reductions in system costs and installation timelines that only make more projects viable.

Quest Renewables

The Value of Expertise

There is enough institutional knowledge among the chief carport construction companies now to give developers and larger investors confidence. Feast your eyes on California’s Franchise Tax Board complex, for example (pictured above). Developed by DGS-Building Property Management and installed by Ecoplexus at one of the largest business campuses in northern California, it is the state’s largest carport installation (10,400 PV panels), covering 1,276 employee parking spaces, spanning over 622,000 sq ft and generating 3.6 MW.

The project was made possible because of Baja Carport’s specialization in pre-engineered, pre-fabricated high-tensile, light gauge steel structures. And in chatting with its team at SPI this year, we’ve learned the company has been able to further streamline the costs of its system.

Then there is 4 S.T.E.L. and its standardized processes. Carport projects involve a ton of engineering and civil approval. 4 S.T.E.L.’s staff of engineers, project managers and drafters can design and erect a carport in their sleep at this point, but the big value comes in swift preapproval of its designs with the California Division of State Architects among other strict jurisdictions and building departments. Design preapproval can literally shave months off certain project timelines.

Park-onomics: Best practices for constructing cost-effective carport projects

Carports are certainly spreading beyond California too. At Michigan State University (MSU), Inovateus Solar is nearing completion of a 14-MW solar carport project spanning five parking lots and 700 sq ft on the East Lansing campus (pictured below). Using Schletter’s Park@Sol concept, the design is a maintenance-free, lightweight aluminum system with canopies standing 14-ft tall at the lowest point to provide enough room for recreational vehicles to park during football season. The carport install is expected to generate 15,000 MWh of electricity annually for MSU with projections showing a savings of $10 million in electricity costs over the next 25 years.

Schletter

Disruptive Designs

Key to the Schletter approach is its Micropile foundation, a hollow metal rod installed deep into the ground (pictured to the right), that requires less concrete material to accomodate even high wind and snow loads.

“The technology innovation of using Schletter micropiles as foundations and precast concrete pads, in addition to the engineering design, cut the construction schedule in half and minimized the risk factors in a rainy environment like Florida,” said Javier Latre Gorbe, VP of Technical Operations for ESA Renewables.

A newer entrant into the carport system space, Quest Renewables, has an especially exciting concept. Hatched as project at Georgia Tech Research Institute in 2011, the design received a work grant from the DOE’s SunShot Initiative and was commercialized in 2014. The hook here is a triangular support structure that requires less steel and allows for most of it to be assembled on the ground (pictured above).

Solar carports will spread across the country as costs decline

A vehicle auction company in Elkridge, Md., put in a 304-kW system and selected the Quest Renewables QuadPod to reduce foundation counts by 50 percent (using 50 percent less steel) to mitigate the poor soil conditions. From site survey to powering up, the system was completed in 45 days with minimal interruption to the parking lot. Another project in Portland, Maine, needed to minimize disruption of the work area. The 90 percent ground-level construction allowed it to be built in just eight days from start to finish. This first parking garage canopy install in Maine will sustain 112 mph winds and 50 psf of snow.

There’s a long way to go to fill in that void NREL is talking about, but it’s a start.

— Solar Builder magazine

The Ultimate SPI Showcase: Here’s what to see at Solar Power International 2017

Big leap for microinverters

APsystems SPI

APsystems will unveil the YC600, a dual-module, smart grid and Rule 21 compliant microinverter at SPI in Las Vegas. A groundbreaking design in microinverter technology, the YC600 will offer the highest peak output power, faster transmission speed and more modules allowed per string than comparable microinverters. A wider MPPT voltage range will result in a greater energy harvest for homeowners.

You’ll want to get the full scoop at booth 1745.

Streamlined Shutdown

Fronius

Fronius is launching a new generation of its Rapid Shutdown Box, which the company says will be the most convenient solution for NEC 2014 (690.12) and NEC 2017 compliance, while enhancing overall rooftop and firefighter safety. The new generation includes two versions: the Fronius Rapid Shutdown Box Duo and Quattro.
“Based on customer feedback, we implemented many improvements into this new generation of our Rapid Shutdown Box,” says Michael Mendik, head of solution management at Fronius USA.

Directly connected to the inverter through the same conduit as the DC homeruns and powered by the array, the Fronius solution minimizes the number of components and eliminates the need for an external power supply. The low-profile design and the multiple mounting options allow for installation underneath the modules, ensuring a clean system look. In addition, the NEMA 4X rating ensures the box is built for severe outdoor conditions. MC4 connectors, spring-loaded terminals and generous wiring space make the wiring a breeze. The Rapid Shutdown Box also acts as a combiner box, removing the need for additional hardware. Booth 3943.

Lightweight, flexible power conversion

Ideal Power

Ideal Power invented a new kind of power conversion architecture that delivers on flexibility, allowing you to enable or disable any features depending on project needs. At SPI, check out its 30-kW Stabiliti Series power converters. These multiport, compact converters are smaller, lighter and dramatically reduce installation costs while increasing return on investment. Ideal Power recently partnered with NEXTracker to implement it in various PV sites throughout North America. Booth 1433.

A top rail clip to rule them all

Heyco solar rail clips

Heyco has been busy this summer, introducing several new clips and wire management accessories for the solar market. Newest to the lineup are the SunRunner 4-2 and SunRunner 4-2U, which are top rail clips for various racking manufacturers such as Unirac, Ironridge, Everest, SnapNRack, Solar Mount and other similar racking profiles. The SunRunner 4-2 and SunRunner 4-2U are suitable for the new Enphase Q Cable. At the booth, you can also enter for a chance to win a Google Home. Booth 4762.

Drive down carport costs

Baja Carports InterSolar 2017 Booth Models

Baja Construction always has a standout booth, and this year its in-house construction team will be installing its signature Baja Solar Support System design, the “Braced Single Post Support,” built with high-tensile light gauge steel to support 24 solar modules (7.8 kW). Included in the structure is an EV Station for the hot red Tesla parked underneath. Meet Baja’s in-house designers, engineers and project managers and also make certain to visit Baja’s sponsored lobby lounge for food and beverages. I’m sure you’re already there. Booth 4155.

Improve your grip strength

Ace Clamp solar mount
AceClamps are factory-assembled clamps with patented design features that allow strong connections to standing-seam roof panels without the use of set screws or any other loose parts that could damage the surface of the roof panel. AceClamp designs have been vibration tested during the development stage and incorporate special locking features to ensure that the bolts do not back out when subjected to vibratory loads from wind flutter and light seismic activity. Booth 809.

OMG Roofing solar mount

OMG Roofing Products has introduced PowerGrip Universal for mounting solar racking systems on commercial roofs. PowerGrip Universal is designed to reduce or eliminate ballast in solar racking systems, so there’s less weight, material handling and labor on the roof. Made of heavy-duty cast aluminum, PowerGrip Universal offers 3,300 lbf of tensile strength, 2,500 lbf of shear strength and 2,000 lbf of compressive strength. It’s one of the strongest anchors on the market. Booth 629.

Solar Connections

The Standing Seam Power Clamp from Solar Connections can attach to virtually any standing seam profile and draws its strength from patent-pending WaveLock Technology with optional two, three and five points of attachment. The top can be custom drilled and tapped to fit any bolt configuration. Offering ease of installation, the Silver Bullet set screws include a rounded bullet tip to maximize strength while also keeping the paint finish and seam free from harm. Additionally, the Standing Seam Power Clamp is available in standard mill finish aluminum material, making it an item you can easily keep in stock when the need arises. Booth 1569.

Reinventing the ground mount

Nuance Energy

Nuance Energy’s patent-pending Osprey PowerPlatform could revolutionize ground-mounted solar projects. This earth anchor foundation system satisfies permitting requirements for virtually any site and soil type without the need for geotechnical reports or special inspections. It eliminates the need for heavy equipment or cement by enabling small, unskilled crews to install the entire platform quickly and easily using only handheld tools. Booth 2108.

Meet the 4G platform

Ginlong Solis inverter

Ginlong Technologies is now shipping its Solis 4G Platform. What you can see at SPI this year in booth 2427 is the Solis-1P(2.5-10K)-4G-US single phase string inverters, with high switching frequency; 2, 3 and 4 MPPTs designs; 97.8 percent peak efficiency (97.5 percent CEC); fan-less NEMA 4X / IP65 design, integrated AFCI; web-based and smartphone app monitoring, all under 44 lbs. The Solis 25K-66K-US three phase inverters are designed for all commercial and utility-scale installations with four MPPT designs and ultra-low start up volume that maximizes energy harvest. Booth 2427.

Five trackers to, um, track

SunLink TTD

SunLink’s TechTrack enables efficient load redistribution and allows the system to handle extreme wind with less steel, fewer foundations and lower cost. Now, TechTrack’s intelligent control system also delivers equally responsive control modes for snow, flood and O&M. The result is system level benefits, visible in SunLink’s Vertex data monitoring system. Rigorous testing to UL3703 further reduces permitting risk. Booth 3319.

Soltec

SF7 is the next-generation horizontal single-axis solar PV tracker from Soltec. Soltec says the SF7 enables up to 5 percent greater MW per acre than other trackers and does that with 54 percent fewer piles-per-MW, 15 percent less parts count and 58 percent fewer screw type connections than leading competitors. SF7 standard features include short tracker site-filling options, unique steep-slope tolerance of 17 percent NS, efficient self-powering and innovative cable management solutions for combining, fusing and protecting PV source circuits more economically. Booth 3640.

Solar FlexRack TDP 2 Turnkey Solar Tracker_2017

Solar FlexRack is launching its TDP Tracker with a new BalanceTrac design to increase energy yield and reduce balance of system costs. This TDP 2.0 Solar Tracker with BalanceTrac, optimized for 1,000- and 1,500-V modules, has greater rotational range of up to 120° and enables more modules per row (up to 90). The robust design delivers autonomous tables that increase site flexibility to maximize land use. Booth 2538.

AllEarth Renewable

AllEarth Renewables is showing off its new Gen 4 tracker which will be self-powered, to guard against the grid going down and will have expanded communication options, such as Wi-Fi, cellular and SD card enabled. It will come as a complete, pre-engineered system for easy, efficient shipping. Booth 626.

Array Technologies

Array Technologies is revealing the results of a recent TÜV Rheinland-backed independent report focused on solar tracker reliability. Array’s latest single-axis tracker, the DuraTrack HZ v3, is often touted for its reliability and lower cost of ownership. Array says DuraTrack HZ v3 is proven to be 300x less likely to experience catastrophic failure during wind events than more stow-reliant, single-row competitors. Booth 2919.

Page two has new on big-time collaborations, products for boosting performance, installing on shingles and more.

— Solar Builder magazine

Solar carports will spread across the country as costs decline

Baja solar Carport

The evolution of carport design has yielded a leaner, more cost-effective structure that can deliver both the duty of vehicle protection and the function of a solar power plant. While a fairly large number of solar and other companies have attempted to enter this promising carport market — as evidenced at the recent Intersolar 2015 show — not all have succeeded.

“Engineering a carport is exponentially more complex than the most difficult ground-mount or ballasted roof system, and it is outside of the comfort zone of a lot of solar companies,” says Ben Jones, the vice president of market development at S:Flex, based in Denver.

Participating in the market has its rewards, nonetheless. A study by GTM Research projected consistent growth in solar carport installs to 2016. “2014 was the fourth consecutive year during which greater than 100 MW of solar carport installations were installed,” says Scott Moskowitz, a solar analyst at the Boston-based firm. His “U.S. Solar Carport Market 2014-2018: Landscape, Outlook and Leading Companies” report was released in August 2014.

One estimate for the cost of adding a carport to a solar system, compared to a simple ground-mount system, is as little as 50 cents per installed watt. However, some states, like Massachusetts, are directing their solar incentives toward carports rather than mere ground mounts to conserve developable land area, says Matt Harrison, the marketing director for Baja Construction, based in Martinez, Calif. Baja, which is active nationally, leads the industry with some 150 MW of carports installed since 2007.

Engineering Metal Support Systems

Eliminating metal has been the greatest engineering challenge for carport construction thus far, and the main steel structure is the primary target.

CALIFORNIA REQUIRES UNIQUE DESIGN CODES FOR CARPORT INSTALLATIONS AT PUBLIC SCHOOLS.

California requires unique design codes for carport installations at public schools

“Rather than using an off-the-shelf beam, we opted for a built-up three-plate tapered beam that saves 30 percent of the metal weight in a system; permits a span of 18 ft; reduces stress on the foundations, which can be smaller; saves on installation time; and saves on transport cost,” Jones says.

To help with their design, S:Flex partnered with a Nucor division, CBC Buildings, of Lathrop, Calif., to bring steel building engineering and technology into the project. The S:Flex solution has been under design for the past 18 months, and several more refinements are planned for commercial release over the next six months, including a watertight panel-to-panel gasket, a curved roof solution and a roof-top canopy for multi-story carports, Jones says.

Apart from the main structure, the purlins that rest atop and secure the solar panels have recently moved from aluminum to roll-formed steel of a lighter gauge. Mounting Systems, for example, unveiled its Sigma Steel system at Intersolar, in which “aluminum-forming technology has been transferred to formed steel,” says Don Massa, the project manager for the West Sacramento-based company. The new system also has been coated with Arcelor Mittal’s Magnelis self-healing coating with magnesium, for superior corrosion resistance compared with galvanization. The Sigma line also features a unique U-shaped purlin that accepts slot-headed bolts.

Cost Reduction, New Markets Inevitable

PV carport system cost decline

Even though advanced carport engineering has squeezed much of the excess material out of designs, the reduction of the federal tax credit for solar, from a current 30 percent to an anticipated 10 percent after 2016, will mean more carport developers will be pressured to make up the 20 percent difference somehow, Harrison says.

“Panel prices dropped from $2.50 a watt to 60 cents a watt, and now people are looking at the BOS components for further cost reduction. Unfortunately, steel prices don’t go down, so we are sort of a slave to that market,” he notes.

Moscowitz’ research suggests that the cost of turnkey carport systems will drop from an estimated $3.50 in 2014 to $2.50 by 2018, having already dropped from nearly $7 in 2010. His prediction includes some cost compression for the carport structure, but most will come from BOS reductions, including labor costs.

While most of the U.S. carport installs to date have arisen from government-controlled facilities like municipal administrative buildings, regional school districts and the military, more commercial and industrial installs are likely as the market matures.

“We have been pushing for the big box stores to adopt solar carports, but thus far it has not happened very widely,” Harrison says.

Residential carports also may become a more popular concept as the spread of the electric vehicle continues and as vehicle owners opt to install solar+storage packages, including home EV-charging stations, as Tesla suggests.

Preassembly, Kits Cut Costs

Another cost-cutting approach to carport development is pre-packaged modular kits. S:Flex, for example, offers five different kits for different regions around the country: one for the Southwest where there is no snow load; one for the Midwest where there is a typical snow load of 30 lb per sq ft (psf); one for the Northeast where the snow load is up to 65 psf; one for hurricane-prone locations with a wind rating of 180 mph; and one for the California government and public school market where unique design codes are required.

Designing purlins with side slots so that panels may be installed from the ground has also saved double-digit percentages in labor costs for carports. S:Flex’ design, as do some other competitors, now features such slots.

Intersolar North America 2015 Highlights

Racking companies were present in great numbers at the Intersolar North America 2015 show in San Francisco in July, and both established and new companies were widely represented.

One company at the show, 4 S.T.E.L. Engineering, based in San Clemente, Calif., has designed and engineered more than 100 MW of solar canopies, ground mounts and roof mounts in the past three years, including the massive Chaffey Joint Unified High School District in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., that included 7.1 MW of solar over eight separate sites.

KBRacking, based in Toronto, also announced a new national partner for its carport business at the show, Advanced Green Technologies. KB’s Superspan layouts feature cantilevered, single-slope T, double-slope Y and double-T profiles, the latter of which offers up to 100 ft of coverage width. FM Global also has certified the carports for winds up to 180 mph.

Advanced Green Technologies (AGT), based in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., is an engineering, procurement and construction (EPC) company that provides services for solar carport installations throughout North America and the Caribbean, with extensive experience in high-wind zones. In February of this year, AGT was hired by Lockheed Martin to design and build a massive 2.3-MW carport at Lockheed’s Mission Systems and Training facility in Clearwater, Fla., which is now under construction. The project was then touted to be the largest private, non-utility owned solar array in Florida. The Lockheed solar carport will cover 151,400 sq ft of parking, with 7,260 solar modules, to provide shade for 534 cars. The arrays feature Hanwha SolarOne S-series modules and will also include full under-canopy LED lighting.

Solaire Generation, based in New York, also demonstrated its leading-edge carport solutions at the show. The company was a finalist for Intersolar awards this year for both its Boston Properties Garage Top Solar Canopy, covering 60,000 sq ft, and its Smithsonian Environmental Research Center Solar Canopy in Edgewater, Md., which also was designed to repurpose rainwater, a first for the company.”

Charles W. Thurston is a freelance writer who covers solar energy from northern California. Reach him at chazwt@gmail.com.

— Solar Builder magazine