Solar carports: The next commuter fueling stations

nyit-solar-carport-bigImagine this: A world in which the parking spot in which you park your car generates as much energy as you need to drive to work and back.

Sound far-fetched?

It’s not.

In fact, the New York Institute of Technology already has two solar-powered EV charging stations that in many cases are doing just this – generating enough electricity to power the commutes of the lucky NYIT faculty and staff who get to drive the university’s two 2009 Toyota Prius plug-in hybrids.

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The solar-powered charging stations, and the Prius PHVs – smartly wrapped in eye-catching graphics that trumpet the fact that the car is partially powered by the sun – are part of the university’s innovative “One Spot, One Car, One Commute” program.

The program, whose primary goal is research but which also aims to publicize the possibilities of solar-charged driving, aims to build a world in which as many people as possible are driving plug-in vehicles powered partially, or even fully, by the sun.

“The hypothesis we’re investigating,” explains Daniel Rapka, an adjunct instructor and lab manager for NYIT mechanical engineering facilities as well as the project manager for the university’s solar carport initiative, “is if the area of one parking space, with a decent solar panel, produces enough power for one commute.”

Average daily commute in U.S. = 24 miles
The average daily commute, Rapka notes, is 24 miles, or short enough to ensure that, if fully charged, the Prius PHV can potentially get a driver to and from work with little to no gasoline used.

“One Spot, One Car, One Commute” represents “the culmination of several different threads of discussion” that have been occurring at NYIT for awhile, says Rapka.

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Securing grant money Federal Grant money from the U.S. Department of Energy helped transform talk at NYIT about researching the intersections between solar, plug-ins, efficiency, and EV charging technology into reality.

NYIT’s first solar-powered EV charging station went up in March 2009 at its Central Islip campus. A second solar-powered EV charging station was installed at NYIT’s Westbury campus several months later. Each of the two solar charging stations have four spots. The spots offer 2.5 kW of solar-powered charging, or enough to power the typical individual’s annual commute.

“We’re seeing excellent performance in the five-to-twenty-five mile trip range (for the plug-in Prius),” says Rapka of the Priuses, which, thanks to the sun-powered battery pack , sometimes register up to 200 miles per gallon.

nyit-solar-carportSolar carport vs. solar-powered plug-in charging station
Although many people often call the stations solar carports, technically, says Rapka, there’s a difference between a solar carport and a solar-powered plug-in charging station.

A solar carport uses solar panels on a frame to generate electricity and to protect cars from the sun. However, it does not offer the opportunity for EVs to charge right there. It sends the electricity it produces directly into the grid. In contrast, a solar-powered plug-in charging station allows individuals with plug-in vehicles to plug in directly at the station, and, when the sun is shining, to fill their batteries directly with electrons generated via sun power.

Rapka is excited about the solar-plug-in cars synergy, but he doesn’t see it taking off that quickly until gas prices climb to high levels, somewhere around $10 a gallon.

“The key is $10 a gallon gas,” he says, “although you’ll start to see movement when it’s over $5. Higher gas prices are what’s needed to really kick this into gear.”

Rapka does predict that large companies such as Wal-Mart and Target, which have large amounts of blacktop space that could be producing electricity via solar carports and/or solar-powered plug-in charging stations might begin to look seriously at solarizing their parking areas.

“There are business opportunities associated with owning vast power producing areas like parking lots,” says Rapka.

In fact, some companies, among them Dell and Google have already begun to install solar carports in their parking lots.

A mixed and flexible electric grid ideal
However, while he sees much potential for the solar-plug-in synergy, Rapka’s a bigger fan of a mixed electric grid that takes into account local electric use and local electricity production possibilities.

“There is a benefit to taking solar energy and displacing petroleum,” says Rapka. “But, in general, it’s kind of dangerous to connect the two entities [solar and plug-ins] too much together. The biggest benefits of the grid are the different sources feeding into it – and its flexibility. If you tie solar and plug-ins too strictly together, you lose sight of the flexibility of the grid.”

While NYIT’s two solar-powered EV charging stations stand as an effective step towards promoting the sun as a possible source of energy for driving, and, while other solar-powered EV charging stations and solar carports are popping up around the U.S. and around the world, Rapka says it’ll be awhile before the general public begins to truly connect solar energy with driving.

“Our structures are so minimal in comparison to a parking lot,” says Rapka. “It’s tough for people to imagine the extrapolation.”

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