Solar canopy
Credit: Hanjin / Creative Commons

The following commentary was written by Kieren Rudge. Rudge is an operations manager at People's Action for Clean Energy and a graduate student at the Yale School of the Environment. See our commentary guidelines for more information.

It is undeniable that solar power will keep expanding in Connecticut as the state aims to transition to a zero-carbon electric sector by 2040. While market conditions and social acceptance are becoming more favorable for solar power development every year, solar is still met with some apprehension.

A significant setback for renewable energy development is the tension that exists between preserving natural spaces and expanding solar farms. Certain environmental groups have opposed large solar farms when the proposed projects threatened critical natural resources and agricultural land. Renewable energy production needs to ramp up in Connecticut, yet these concerns over land conflicts are important to consider. Luckily there is a solution that solves both problems: solar canopies.

Solar canopies allow solar to be deployed on existing developed land. These arrays can be far smaller than commercial-scale solar farms and they avoid the need for large open spaces. Solar canopies can be sited locally in towns that use the energy that has been generated. Paved surfaces like parking lots provide excellent spaces where energy can be produced while the current land use continues.

Aside from allowing solar to be developed while preserving natural spaces, solar canopies have many other benefits. This type of energy generation is decentralized, which helps to create a modernized electrical grid. The current energy system is dependent on a few large generation plants, while a decentralized grid allows energy to be produced and used locally through many smaller sources. This can help to prevent massive power outages, such as the recent disaster in Texas, by reducing the need for long transmission lines from remote electricity sources. Decentralized production through solar canopies reduces energy losses due to transmission and can provide tangible economic benefits to local communities.

This form of solar can also help to develop a clean transportation sector by integrating renewable energy production with electric vehicle charging stations. This is an essential service that would greatly help Connecticut reduce emissions from vehicles as well as from the energy sector.

New research from People’s Action for Clean Energy demonstrates that there is significant potential for solar canopy arrays to be installed in Connecticut. This study analyzed large parking lots across the state and found that 9,226 GWh of energy can be produced by solar canopies. This is equivalent to 37.8% of current energy consumption in Connecticut, and greater than 80% of consumption when paired with rooftop solar estimates.

Clearly, solar canopies should be a priority for the state government, yet no energy plans mention it and no incentive programs exist specifically for this type of power. The 2020 Draft Integrated Resources Plan that is charting Connecticut's energy transition mentions decentralized solar but focuses on rooftop-based arrays only. Incorporating solar canopies into the statewide energy plan would help build capacity by further diversifying future energy sources.

Rhode Island and Massachusetts have already incorporated solar canopies into their energy policy platforms. These states provide incentives to owners of solar canopies by supplementing the baseline credits provided for any form of solar. Importantly, this helps encourage the adoption of solar canopies by offsetting installation costs and saving consumers money over time.

These states have also expanded key virtual net metering policies beyond the standards in Connecticut. Virtual net metering enables solar energy producers to earn credits by feeding surplus electricity back into the grid. Connecticut’s current virtual net metering program is limited by a statewide cap on the total amount of energy that can feed into the grid, as well as by the size of individual solar systems. Expanding the capacity of this program would be incredibly helpful to maximize benefits for solar canopy energy producers and the communities they are a part of.

This is a crucial moment in history as the nation and individual states race to mitigate and adapt to climate change efficiently and effectively. While Connecticut has made significant progress and developed robust plans to achieve its goal of a zero-carbon electric sector, more needs to be done. Solar canopies need to be a priority so Connecticut can create a resilient grid, preserve natural spaces and mitigate the looming threat of climate change.