What is a solar carport, and how much does it cost?
While a normal carport provides covered shelter for a parked car, a solar carport provides power too!
Before we elaborate on a solar carport, let’s look at a normal carport in a residential setting. A carport is often used as a cheaper alternative to a full garage, providing shelter from the elements, but not really doing much to increase security. Keeping your car under cover when parked has a lot of benefits: in sweltering heat, the car is kept cool in the shade; in colder weather, the carport keeps the car protected from rain, frost, and snow.
A residential solar carport combines the carport concept with a ground-mount solar panel array. It’s a fantastic dual-use structure, providing you with ecologically-friendly power, whilst protecting your car from the elements.
Where can you find one in the wild?
If you’ve seen a solar carport, it was probably in a commercial parking lot. The concept is really taking off in the business world. As the costs of solar power drops, there have been some very high profile companies taking advantage of this concept. Here are just a few examples:
- In 2014, Whole Foods constructed 325 kW of solar power at their site in Brooklyn, NY, covering their entire parking lot in solar panels.
- Lockheed Martin Mission Systems and Training (LM MST) have had solar carports installed at their facility in Clearwater, FL.
- Rutgers University generates 60% of their annual energy requirements from an immense array of solar carports — generating an incredible 8 megawatts of power from their 28 acre parking lot.
Why do people install them?
Though carport panels are a great way to provide power, the savings in energy costs aren’t really what makes them worth looking at–at least for large installations. According to David Froelich, Director of Business Development for Solaire Generation in New York, a carport might generate an 8% internal rate of return, compared with an equivalently sized rooftop installation, which may bring in as much as 11%.
The real attraction is in the side benefits — a solar carport not only generates power, it also provides significant quality-of-life improvements over an uncovered parking space.
So, what if you want one for your home?
Compared with the other options for mounting solar panels, a carport tends to be a little more expensive. Roof mounting is typically the cheapest method of installing solar, but unlike roof mounting, a solar carport doesn’t require any work on your roof — no need for waterproofing roof penetrations, and no need to ensure your roof can take the weight.
It’s important that the roof lasts for the lifetime of any solar system installed on it. If the roof does need replacing, the cost of uninstalling and re-installing the solar array can be significant. The cost of a new roof on top of a solar installation can easily push things into the “not worth it” column. This means that if your roof is old or fragile, a carport is a particularly interesting option. With a solar carport, you can enjoy the benefits of solar without worrying about replacing the roof first.
Comparing solar carports to ground mounting
Next to a ground mounted array, a solar panel carport will likely be more expensive, although the difference won’t be quite as significant. The extra cost is in the greater size and complexity of the framework.
The big advantages in a carport come from the fact that the space beneath the panels is still usable. Your parking experience is much better than parking out in the open, although perhaps not as much as a full garage, depending on the size.
Whether a carport is a better choice than a garage will greatly depend on your specific circumstances. A carport is less secure than a garage and doesn’t give you the same kind of protection from the elements, but you’re still sheltered, parking is easier, and you don’t have to deal with fiddly garage doors to get to your vehicle.
You’re also much less likely to clutter up your parking area with lawnmowers and last year’s Christmas decorations.
Where can you get a solar carport?
There aren’t many companies selling solar carports for the home yet — whilst they’re really catching on in commercial circles, the solar carport is still a relatively new idea in residential markets. A couple of companies notable for offering carports for the residential market are Solar Electric Supply, Inc. and Florian Solar Products.
Unfortunately, most companies only offer personalized quotes, making it hard to give an accurate estimate of the cost of a solar carport in an article like this one. That said, I did manage to find one manufacturer happy to supply a price up front.
Solar Powers Frames, LLC. offers a price list that lets us get an estimate for the cost of a solar carport frame. Their semi-cantilevered design has a covered footprint of roughly 18 by 19 feet — that’s large enough to comfortably house two cars parked side-by-side. The frame will hold just shy of five kilowatts worth of 300 W panels, for an approximate cost of $2,200. Bear in mind that this price does not include the cost of installation. It may also vary a bit depending on the needs of your local environment — higher wind loads or heavy snow loads will both drive up the price, as they need heavier foundations and larger sections of steel to make sure everything is safe and up to code.
It’s worth noting that the offering from Solar Powers Frames is a very bare-bones, utilitarian design. It’s mainly aimed at commercial parking lots, where looks aren’t really a major concern. While it’s a solid, functional structure, there’s little to recommend it from an aesthetic standpoint.
If you want something that better fits in with the aesthetic of your home, it’s worth considering getting the structure “purpose built.” According to homeadvisor.com, a purpose built carport can be had for as little as $3,500 — possibly even cheaper. That cost likely includes roofing materials like felt or slates; as you won’t be needing those, the price drops further. Your solar installer may be willing to build something for you, or you might have to hire a specialist contractor just for the carport frame.
So, how much will a solar carport set you back?
Though we can’t get precise figures, we’ve still got enough to do a comfortable back-of-the-envelope calculation. I’ll be using average, or close to average, figures for everything here — as always with these things, take the answer with a pinch of salt. The specifics of your own situation could give you a wildly different result.
Let’s assume the frame will cost $2,500. We’ll make a further assumption that it’s going to house a 5kW system — in most states that will set you back between $16,000–$18,000. For the sake of simplicity, we’ll assume the $18,000 figure, bringing your total cost up to $20,500.
After accounting for the 30% federal tax rebate, the solar carport is going to set you back by $14,350 — compared to $12,600 for a roof mounted solar system.
I’ve made a few other assumptions — our imaginary average home is using 10,821 kWh per year, and is sited somewhere where with the national median amount of insolation (energy from the sun). This gives our 5kW system a yearly output of 7,020 kWh, and after 25 years, it will have degraded to 80% of its rated output. Our utility company — AverageCo — is supplying grid power at 12.5¢, and energy prices are steadily increasing at 3.5% per year.
- Taking all of that into account, without any solar system at all, you’ll be paying out approximately $52,700 for all your energy over the next 25 years.
- The rooftop solar system will pay for itself in its 13th year, and save you roughly $17,800 or about 34%.
- The solar carport pays for itself during its 14th year of operation, giving a saving of $16,000, or 30%.
Is a solar carport worth it?
How much do you value your parking? If you’ve got the space for it, I’d say a cost of around $1,800 spread over 25 years is a good value proposition for the quality of life improvements. A cleaner car, a more comfortable driving experience, not burning yourself on the seatbelt or roasting yourself alive in the summer months, no early morning rush to scrape the snow and ice off your car before work in winter — I’d say it’s worth it.
Solar carports are still a relatively rare thing, and not typically a standard option. Getting one installed may be more of a hassle, but if you have the space and could use the improvements or you can’t put panels on your roof, I’d definitely recommend you consider it. If you want to know how you can use a solar carport to charge an electric car, read our post: “How Many Solar Panels Does it Take to Charge an Electric Car?”