Is a Solar Carport Worth the Investment Overview, Benefits, and Drawbacks
What are the cost savings and environmental impact? Learn all you need to know.
A solar carport isn't just a carport with solar panels installed on top of it; it's a carport with solar panels built into it. It's essentially a ground-mounted array of solar panels tall enough to park a car under.
Solar carports are easier to install than a rooftop solar system because they don't sit on an existing roof. This makes them less expensive and even something that can be done as a do-it-yourself project, assuming you have the requisite skills and the aid of someone with an electrician's license.
Solar Carport or Solar Canopy?
"Solar carport” and “solar canopy” are often used interchangeably. Treehugger defines a solar canopy as a larger structure covering a commercial parking lot, service stations, public electric vehicle stations, and other large-scale operations. We use "solar carport" to describe a smaller-scale project covering only 1-3 vehicles, such as in a residential setting.
Benefits of a Solar Carport
Our cars sit idle for 90% of the time, and the places we put them occupy a great deal of space. In cities, about 40% of all paved areas are taken up by exposed parking areas. Paving over a portion of your property for no other reason than to park an idle vehicle is an investment that gets little in return. Solar carports provide a number of benefits, only some of them financial.
The most obvious advantage is the extra power solar carports provide. Whether in a business setting or a residential one, solar carports can be used to charge electric vehicles, or they can be used in combination with a battery backup system, increasing a home's resilience during power outages and allowing homeowners to reduce their electricity bills.
Especially in commercial zones, where real estate is costly, it makes sense for businesses to cover their parking spaces with solar carports. Not only do they provide shade and shelter for their customers' or employees' vehicles, but they generate electricity for their business, resulting in significant savings. Businesses and industries can also reduce their carbon emissions or earn income by generating renewable energy credits (RECs), which can be sold to other industries seeking to offset their emissions.
Mitigating Heat Islands
Uncovered pavement contributes to the creation of heat islands, where daytime temperatures can be 1–7 degrees F higher than temperatures in surrounding areas. This exacerbates the dangers of rising global temperatures, especially for people more likely to suffer from heat exposure, such as the elderly, young children, and low-income communities. Installing carports at residences or over commercial parking lots can reduce the stress of reflected heat by absorbing solar radiation and converting it into usable energy.
Better Sun Exposure
Being mounted on a frame means the solar panels on a carport can be angled to maximize their exposure to the sun, rather than have to comfort the pitch and angle of an existing roof. While an east-west facing roof may not have sufficient exposure to merit the cost of a solar installation, a free-standing carport can be installed at any angle. And depending on its height, a solar carport can take advantage of solar trackers, which allow the panels to follow the sun throughout the day.
Like other ground-mounted panels, a solar carport is more accessible and easier to maintain than a rooftop system. It is easier to clear snow or debris from them and to periodically wash them with water—without the need to climb on a sloped roof. Should a homeowner's roof need repair for any reason, there are no panels that need to be removed in order to make the repairs.
Solar Carport Considerations
Calculating what a solar carport might cost involves a number of variables, including how many cars you want to cover, whether you buy a kit, do it yourself, or have it installed, and other factors.
The average American midsize passenger vehicle measures 15-by-6 feet while the average residential solar panel is 5.4-by-3.25 feet. Using back-of-the-napkin math, a residential carport large enough to cover two parked cars might require 20 to 24 solar panels. Solar panels can weigh on average roughly 40 pounds, so a solar carport frame with six panels must be able to support up to 800 pounds or more.
With an average residential solar panel capable of producing 270 to 300 watts, a 20-panel system could output between 5.4 and 6 kW, while a 24-panel system could produce between 6.4 and 7.2 kW. Depending on the efficiency of the panels and how much sun they get, that could be enough to supply the average American household's annual electricity consumption.
According to the most recent data from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the cost of an installed 22-panel residential rooftop solar system was $2.71/watt, meaning the cost of the installation of a solar carport might range from $14,600 for a 5.4 kW system to $19,500 for a 7.2 kW system. These costs, however, are for rooftop solar systems, which are more complex to install. A simpler solar carport might be significantly less, but since data about solar carport installations is not available without getting a quote from a specialized installer, the cost is harder to calculate. Solar carports may be eligible for financial incentives, such as federal credits and state or utility rebates. Currently, the federal tax credit is 26% and is set to expire in 2024, though this may change with new federal legislation. Should you qualify for it, a full federal tax credit would reduce the price of a $15,000 system to $11,100.
The process of installing panels is not that complicated, though there are some important considerations. A DIY project could cut costs significantly: the cost of the panels alone could be from $3,750 and up for a 20-panel system and $4,450 for a 24-panel system. Even adding the carport frame, racking materials, wiring, permitting, and other costs, a DIY project may result in significant savings. SolarReviews estimates that a DIY solar carport may cost between $5,000 and $14,000. An installer specializing in rooftop solar systems can install a carport for you, but note that roughly one-third of the cost of a solar installation comes in “soft costs” such as design, permitting, inspections, and labor. Depending on the scale of your project, it may be more economical to stretch the soft costs over a combined solar carport and rooftop system to get more return for your investment. Because of their unique configuration, it may be less expensive to work with a company that specializes in both standard-sized and customized solar carport installations. Still, other companies offer solar carport kits for homeowners or businesses to install themselves. If you have the right DIY skills to install a support structure upon which you affix solar panels, and with the help of a licensed electrician, you can build your own solar carport. Just make sure you follow all applicable building codes.
Is It Worth It?
$15,000-$20,000 sounds like a lot of money just for a carport, but keep in mind that the payback for solar systems can be as short as 5 years in some states, depending on the amount of sun you get, any federal or state incentives, your state's net metering program, and other factors. The average payback time is 7 to 12 years. That means your home has free electricity for the rest of the time you own the house—and if and when you do sell it, you've increased the house's value. Or, to look at it another way, once the panels have paid for themselves, you have free fuel for your electric car for as long as you own the car.