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Solar Parking

Solaire Generation faced an extremely tight timeline while installing the largest garage-mounted carport system in the northeast U.S., but they crossed the finish line and completed the Massachusetts project in record time.

By Diane Mettle

In late 2013, Solaire Generation was given the opportunity to take over a 60,000 square foot (1.4 acre) solar canopy project covering a parking garage in Boston Properties' Bay Colony office park in Waltham, Massachusetts, just northwest of Boston. It was slated to be the largest garage-mounted carport system in the Northeast. Solaire knew they were coming into the project late, the clock was ticking, and getting to the finish line by June 2014 would be tight, but they decided to go for it.

David Froelich, Solaire's director of business development, says his company was contacted because it had recently completed its first garage solar project for the Staples headquarters, which wasn't far from the Boston Properties project. "We were also working on other projects at the same time, so we were quickly becoming experts in designing solutions for the tops of parking garages, which tend to be a more complicated canopy solution and engineering challenge than putting canopies on the ground."

In parking garage installations, the big engineering challenge is tying the canopy into the structural grid of the garage. When installing a ground canopy, there is a lot of flexibility in the placement of foundations, and columns can be moved if necessary. However, with a parking garage, it's necessary to tie into the established grid structure, and each attachment point may have completely different conditions. Such was the case with the Boston Properties project.

Solaire hit the ground running. They finished the paperwork and completed the initial engineering by the December 2013 deadline. They brought in Healthy Planet Partners as their finance partner and, as Froelich explains, "we managed to hammer together the deal in January. From that point on, it was a race to the finish. We had to complete engineering and permitting-and we needed to fabricate and erect the steel and get the solar up, all before the end of June.

"The garage had various complications, both on the top level and the level below, mostly around the attachment points," adds Froelich. "It was a matter of engineering and incorporating what we were finding in the field, which often didn't exactly match what the drawings had indicated."

 
  

Once construction was underway, coordination was key to keeping the garage operational, while keeping sections accessible to workers and maintaining a safe environment for all.

"It was like a child's sliding puzzle game where you're constantly moving other pieces to create space," says Froelich. "In our case we were constantly moving the construction fencing. We couldn't take too much space at one time, so we took smaller spaces and kept moving them. It was a constant challenge."

The other necessary project coordination was between the different trades on site, especially when operating on such a tight timeframe. "There was no time to sequence the work so that one trade could finish its work and then let another get in and do their work," explained Froelich. "We had several trades working at the same time, trying to dance around each other to get the project completed. We were very fortunate to have an exceptional, cooperative team."

They were also lucky to get some good weather, as most of the construction happened in the spring.

When it comes to choosing panels, Solaire generally uses tier one. In this case, there wasn't a lot of lead-time, and it was critical to find a company that had a great panel and could also help Solaire meet its fast-approaching deadlines.

"We got all the paperwork completed in early February, which meant we needed to have panels delivered in four to six weeks," explains Froelich. "Canadian Solar turned out to be very flexible with us."

Solaire used a mix of local contractors and Solaire management to complete the 840 kW installation. In the end, the canopy required 300 tons of steel to support 2,850 panels. The electrical system includes a 1000v Power One central inverter, an ABB medium voltage transformer, and a Deck monitoring system. The canopy at Boston Properties also incorporated Solaire's optional water management system so the water that hits the panels runs down into a gutter and out through downspouts.

 
With solar projects installed in parking garages, the big engineering challenge is tying the canopy into the existing structural grid of the garage, and each attachment point may have completely different conditions. This was the challenge that Solaire Generation faced, and successfully worked with, on the Boston Properties project.  
  

Solaire met the June deadline when it arrived. The solar facility became operational that summer, producing more than one million kWh of renewable power annually-around 20 percent of Bay Colony Building 950's total energy consumption or enough renewable energy to offset 340 metric tons of CO2 annually.

Froelich says the size of the solar facility is fairly typical for Solaire Generation, with the company's average project size right around a megawatt. "It's also a pretty typical garage-top size," he adds. "We've seen some slightly on the larger end, but we're seeing a lot of garage opportunities in the 500 kW to 1 MW range."

This year the east coast received more than its fair share of snow, and although the canopy's solar output was reduced during that period-like all rooftop and ground mount production is reduced under snow-the canopies had no issues supporting the significant snowfall.

"When designing and engineering, step one is to identify the snow, wind, and seismic requirements," says Froelich. "In the east, because the steel is already so beefy to handle the snow and wind, seismic issues aren't really an issue. It's a different story in California, where there is no snow and little wind, so seismic becomes the more important factor."

As owners, Healthy Planet Partners is now responsible for monitoring the facility. They have hired Nexamp as an O&M partner. Combined, the two companies will monitor the solar facility on an ongoing basis to ensure that production remains high.

 
  

Don't be surprised to see more garage-top canopies in the future, as they are growing in popularity. Solaire is working on eight to 10 canopies at any one time, with many more in the pipeline.

"I think most people like the concept of solar parking canopies to begin with because you're using available land," says Froelich. "You're not taking away any of the utility, you're just making it better. You're offering shaded parking, some protection from the elements, and you're turning your parking lot into a power plant. A typical ground mount takes a field and turns it into a solar farm. Great for clean energy, but it's no longer a field. Parking lots with solar canopies are still parking lots."

Parking garages are also a good option for canopies because the top level of a parking garage is generally the least popular parking spot because cars get hot and they're exposed to the elements. By adding a canopy, you are also adding additional parking benefits.

Another reason for the growing popularity is the ever-decreasing price of solar. "The prices have been on almost a straight line down ever since we came into this business in 2009," says Froelich. "We're seeing a lot of activity in California, but we're still seeing a ton of work in Massachusetts and New Jersey where there are strong SREC markets."

But Froelich says affordability isn't the company's primary goal. "We really are focused on delivering safe, durable, and aesthetically pleasing solutions to people. That's been the approach that Solaire has taken from day one. We've never tried to be the cheapest canopy. We've tried to be the best canopy that makes the best economic sense."

Although solar facilities are still incentive driven, prices are coming down and Froelich and others are looking to a bright solar future ahead. For starters, Solaire is looking to do double the business in 2015 that it did in 2014.

"It's all going in the right direction, and we're all looking at what the world is going to look like at the end of 2016 if the Federal ITC indeed drops from 30 percent to 10 percent. I think Solaire and a lot of companies in this space are looking at ways to reduce the cost of not only our own products, but the balance of system that goes into a turnkey solar system. Nothing is left unchecked because prices have to keep coming down."

In the meantime, Solaire is proud of the work they did in Massachusetts and completing it on a crazy tight deadline.

This past summer, Solaire was part of the ribbon cutting to herald the largest garage-top canopy in the region. It's not only going to provide the equivalent of 130 homes' worth of clean energy to the grid, it's also going to shade a few cars in the process.

 


May/June 2015