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Image credit: Environment America

Clean Power

Commercial Rooftop Solar On Warehouses Could Power All Of Them

Commercial rooftop solar on America’s warehouses could provide 185 TWh of clean renewable energy every year.

CleanTechnica readers know there is war going on in which fossil fuel interests are straining every muscle and fiber to slow down the transition to renewable energy from rooftop solar, offshore wind farms, and battery storage installations. They don’t care a flying fig leaf about rising sea levels or deaths from air pollution. Warming seas and melting ice caps? Who cares? There’s $100 trillion in coal, oil, and gas buried underground around the Earth and they won’t rest until every molecule has been extracted and burned. Drill, Baby, Drill!

At the present time, there are powerful groups backed by dirty money trying with all their might to prevent solar panels from being installed on farm land. It’s a threat to our way of life, they scream, while all the time ignoring the real threat to human life, which is a planet grown too hot because of the pollution left behind when fossil fuels are burned.

They tear their hair and rend their garments at the thought of a wind turbine being located less than a mile away from any residence or school, but have nothing to say when fracking trucks set up shop just yards away from those same residences and schools. The hypocrisy of these people is simply stunning. They would happily see each and every one of us and all our children die before they would lift a finger to address the number one challenge facing humanity today — global heating.

Even though there are plenty of examples of solar and agriculture working harmoniously together — and providing guaranteed income to struggling farmers — these NIMBY nut jobs think they know better what to do with land than the farmers who actually own the land and work it every day. But there may be a partial solution.

A new report by Environment America says there are more than 450,000 warehouses in America. In total, they have nearly 16.4 billion square feet of rooftop space that could be used for solar systems. “The rooftops of American warehouses built before 2019 have the potential to generate 185.6 terawatt-hours of solar electricity each year, enough to power almost 19.4 million average homes. California, Florida, Illinois, Texas and Georgia have the largest warehouse solar generation potential,” the report says.

The authors claim that putting solar panels on the nation’s warehouses would be good for businesses, good for electricity customers, good for the grid, and good for the environment. Generating the full 185.6 terawatt-hours (TWh) of renewable energy from commercial rooftop solar installations would keep 112 million metric tons of carbon dioxide from being spewed into the atmosphere annually. That’s the equivalent to removing 24 million gasoline-powered passenger vehicles from America’s roads.

On average, US warehouses could produce 176% of their annual electricity use by fully building out their rooftop solar potential. That would allow them to produce more electricity than they use and provide electricity to their communities. In addition, producing electricity on rooftops close to where it will be used reduces energy losses that occur during the transmission and distribution of electricity. Such transmission losses accounted for 5.2% of gross electricity generation in America in 2020.

There are more benefits. Commercial rooftop solar will reduce the need for new utility scale generation and transmission infrastructure, while making the grid more resilient to outages and disruptions. California, Ohio, Illinois, Georgia, and Texas have the largest emissions reduction potential, the report states.

Why Aren’t More Companies Doing This?

If this makes so much sense, why is every warehouse owner in America not putting solar panels on the roof? There are a number of reasons. The roofs on some of those buildings may not be designed to take the extra weight of solar panels and their racking systems. [There may be lightweight panels coming to market soon. Maarten Vinkhuyzen is attempting to arrange a tour of Solarge facility to learn more.]

Some of the roofs may be in poor condition and in need of replacement. It doesn’t make sense to install rooftop solar and then dismantle the system in a few years to fix the roof. Inertia is part of the problem, along with local permitting rules. Some business owners may prefer to stick with what they know instead of getting involved in new technologies, although saving money on utility bills should be a powerful incentive. Building officials who are unfamiliar with large rooftop solar may delay the process until the point where everyone loses interest.

Then there is the issue of determining how a rooftop solar installation will impact the value of the building. If the owner sells, will all those panels up there be an asset or a detriment? Some prospective buyers may not want to deal with managing such systems.

Lowe’s Knows

One company that recognizes the value of commercial rooftop solar is Lowe’s. The home improvement company announced this week it will install 48 MW of rooftop solar on 52 of its stores and 2 of its distribution centers in California. The rooftop solar projects will be installed by solar developer Greenskies Clean Focus, and are projected to generate 76 gigawatt-hours (GWh) of electricity per year — enough to supply 90% of the energy needed to operate each Lowe’s location.

Lowe’s has 208 million square feet of rooftop space available on all its stores. If all of its roofs were covered with solar panels, the company could generate 2,382.3 GWh of electricity per year — enough to power more than 223,000 homes. Lowe’s ranks fourth behind Walmart, Target, and Home Depot when it comes to rooftop solar potential among big box stores, according to Environment America.

“It’s exciting to see Lowe’s begin to tap the solar potential of store rooftops,” said Johanna Neumann, senior director of Environment America’s campaign for 100% renewable energy. “The sooner a larger retailer like Lowe’s or Walmart commits to solar nationwide, the sooner it will help bring about the very necessary transformation of using America’s vast flat rooftops to harness clean energy from the sun.”

Policies & Rooftop Solar

Environment America is advocating for officials at all levels of government to implement policies that help to accelerate adoption of solar energy by America’s businesses. These policies should include:

  • Ensuring that businesses that generate solar electricity are adequately compensated for the benefits they deliver to the environment, public health, and consumers, through programs like net metering, feed-in tariffs, and value of solar payments
  • Enabling and enacting financing tools like third party and Commercial Property Assessed Clean Energy (C-PACE) financing of solar installations to help remove financial barriers to solar adoption
  • Supporting community solar power programs to allow businesses to go solar in partnership with their communities
  • Streamlining and reducing the costs of solar permitting and interconnection processes to make going solar easier and faster

All those things need to happen, but what may be most important here is that Lowe’s is leading the way, which will put pressure on others to follow. No one wants to be the first to try new things, but no one wants to be the last either.

There is no need to cover every acre of farmland with solar panels when there are millions of square feet of roofs on warehouses, retail stores, and parking lots that could be put to use to bring more solar energy to businesses and communities all across the land.

Yes, two thousand solar panels on a rooftop may cost more to install than a million solar panels alongside a highway, but we mustn’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Every available option to increase the amount of renewable energy available to Americans needs to be diligently explored.

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Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."


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