The sustainability irony of suburban solar carports

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African cities are in a race to keep up with the global trend of environmental sustainability and renewable energy in urban areas. At the same time the rapid urbanisation worsened by inner city decay has led to the rise of suburbanisation in most African cities. As a result, the suburban areas and suburban commercial centres are gaining popularity, both among environmentalists and urbanists in African cities. Far off the beat however is the emerging trend of installation of solar panels on rooftops of parking lots at suburban shopping centres.

The rise of suburban solar carports in African cities

The idea of solar carports in African has been advocated for mainly by retail companies who seek to reduce their environmental footprint. This is critical for their sustainable business competitiveness and reducing the energy costs of their business. In Nairobi, Kenya, two companies, SolarAfrica and Solar Century installed 3,300 solar panels at the car parking lot of the Garden City Mall a 32-acre Garden City Development along the Thika Superhighway. The solar carport which opened in September 2016 will be generating an estimate of 1,256MWh a year cutting carbon emissions by 745 tonnes a year[1]. Other than energy generation, the solar carport at the mall is intended to attract more customers for a weather protected parking facility.

Makro Stores Solar Carport

Not far from Kenya is South Africa, where Makro Stores is spearheading installation of solar panels at parking lots of its stores. After its first installation on parking lots on Carnival store in Brakpan, Makro Stores is now embarking on a countrywide installation.  Makro Stores has so far reported an estimate of 193 tonnes in carbon emissions, saving about 100 tonnes of coal and 267 000 litres of water. Solar panels on parking lots of shopping centres surely reduces operating cost of retailers, not to mention the environmental certifications they may get for energy efficiency there by increasing their competitiveness and lure more prospective investors who are concerned about the environmental sustainability of the companies.

Suburban solar carports around the world

Solar Carport City of Los Angeles

It is out of these merits that solar panels on suburban parking lots has gained momentum globally. There is a growing number of solar carports mostly suburban shopping centres. Los Angeles, one of the most automobile dependent city in United States has been experiencing a rise of solar carports. The City’s Department of Water and Power has been embarking on installing solar panels at parking lots to maximise the unused space in parking[2].  In Hull, England the City has been installing solar panels on the multi-storey car parks generating energy which feeds into the power grid[3]. In June 2016, New South Wales’s Sydney Markets boasted the largest purposely-built solar carport in Australia, a total of 911kw of solar energy to the Market[4]. It is not exclusively an African cities phenomenon. Nevertheless, for African cities the trend has been in resonance with the increasing suburban sprawl most cities are experiencing. The urban population growth in African cities has led to suburban housing, increase in car ownership and automobile dependency and proliferation of suburban shopping centres. As if this trend is enough to squeal loud for urban sprawl renewal, the emergence of suburban solar carports is contrary.

Environmental morality and negative environmentalism

In recent years of environmental movement, there has been a rise in adoption of fragmented approaches to sustainability. Suburban solar carports are one of the environmental approach which lack holistic overview of sustainability in context of a city. Urbanists and environmentalists have been fighting urban suburban sprawl for long. In efforts to repair urban sprawl in emerging cities, solar carports provide cosmetics to environmentalism at the loss of sustainability progress. As Andres Duany characterised it, giving second breath of life to suburbia by putting an ethical overlay on it, the proliferation of suburban solar carports, portray environmentalists as living in harmony with suburbia.

The rise of automobile ownership and dependency in emerging cities is of critical sustainability concern. ‘Thanks’ to solar carports, for the environmental immorality of automobile dependency is cushioned by solar carports as shopping centres lure more customers at a lower operating cost. On a serious note, the proliferation of suburban solar carports at city level retrogress the progress towards repair of urban sprawl. The sprawl repair efforts are affected by suburban automobiles’ newly gained ‘environmental ethics’ for doing good to the environmental through renewable energy. At the end the proliferation of solar carports yield negative environmental effects of increasing automobile dependency and its contribution to carbon emissions.

In designing urban environmental solutions, be it energy, transport or vegetation preservation, it is critical to consider the holistic view. Small-scale environmental interventions can impact the sustainability of the city if not scale-proofed. Suburban carports (driven by retailers in African cities and surprisingly by municipalities in developed economies) poses a challenge for overall sustainability. The viability of solar energy as sustainable alternative energy is influence by how its setting affects other environmental parameters of the city. In this case the suburban sprawl and automobile dependency. Otherwise this solar-carports proliferation in the name of environmentalism tend to portray “suburbia is here to stay”.

[1] The Star. Africa’s largest solar carport is turned on.
[2] WashingtonPost The Best idea in a long time. Covering parking lots with solar panels. 
[3] Hull Dailymail. Solar Panels help power council buildings
[4] Renew Economy. Sydney Market Solar car park to be Australia’s largest as new install takes capacity to 911kw

This article was published in collaboration with the African Urban Institute

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