A better way to deploy solar canopies: An inside look at DSD’s process
By, Ben Jones / Published on January 25, 2021
Solar canopies are a smart way to add renewable energy generation to everything from parking lots and garages to walkways and agricultural feeding lots. At the same time, they require a higher level of diligence, design, engineering, and construction skill to build well.
While canopies are similar to rooftop and ground installations from an electrical design perspective, they pose added complexity, from site selection to materials and engineering.
Distributed Solar Development (DSD) has taken a unique approach to designing and deploying solar canopies by assembling a team and standardizing a process that’s fast, cost-effective, and meets the site’s goals.
Unlike most competitors, DSD has an in-house canopy team comprised of experienced designers, structural engineers, architects, construction professionals and innovators focused entirely on canopy optimization and process standardization.
Why solar canopy installations can be so complex
Solar canopies are often mounted in areas designed for other activities, like parking for cars or protection from the elements for pedestrians. That adds considerations that other installations don’t have, so the process to get up and running is a bit different. Here is a glimpse at some important parts of that process:
- Perform a deep dive on the site. We need to consider and mitigate various aspects of the site, including easements, property boundaries, and underground utilities. Because solar canopies are often mounted on parking lots and garages, among other places, the conditions below ground are not immediately obvious. Everything from underground pipes to electrical lines to different types of soil can present construction challenges, so we need to perform a thorough geotechnical investigation.
- Assess what materials we’ll need. Canopies built on parking lots face certain unique obstacles. Unlike a rooftop or ground mount, the columns supporting the solar modules must be taller and farther apart so cars can park below them and pedestrians aren’t impeded. As a result, these projects can require more steel than a typical rooftop or ground mount, and the increased material cost can make canopies more expensive on a cost per watt basis. Some state incentives help offset some of this expense, and we design projects to maximize cost-effectiveness.
- Design the canopy to blend in with existing architecture. Because solar canopies are often located in high-traffic commercial areas, they need to fit with the look and feel of the site. In addition, designs must accommodate the surrounding environment, which might include tall buildings or trees that could block solar exposure.
- Consider local challenges. No two solar canopy projects are exactly the same and sometimes even two sections of the same project don’t perfectly match. In Arizona, where solar conditions are some of the best in the world, there’s more leniency in design than in Massachusetts, which has much different solar conditions and soil, along with the added variable of snow and ice. In California, canopies must have additional structural support for earthquakes. In Florida they’re designed with hurricanes in mind. Even within those states, conditions can differ from city to city, requiring a fresh design best suited to the local elements.
What DSD does differently
We compensate for these challenges with an approach that saves time, improves the design and deployment, and achieves a better result for the client.
- DSD has a dedicated canopy team, focused on optimization, innovation, and standardization
Like many solar developers, we have assembled a comprehensive in-house team, including project managers, developers, electrical engineers, quality control specialists, safety experts, and financial professionals to drive the development of C&I solar projects nationwide. Unlike most of our competitors, we have an in-house canopy team comprised of experienced designers, structural engineers, architects, construction professionals and innovators focused entirely on canopy optimization and process standardization. Everyone in our organization interacts with the canopy team, supporting them in offering differentiated solutions at a competitive price.
- DSD is agnostic about vendors, technologies, and installation teams
Our team oversees our strong network of partners. We also have high-volume relationships with the best suppliers in the industry and are able to carefully select the best components for each sites’ specific needs. We take an agnostic approach, choosing the right vendors, technology, materials, and installation partners based on the conditions of each site to ensure every project is executed in the best possible way.
- DSD’s canopy team does design iterations in-house to meet architectural and visual impact requirements
We’re able to run photometric studies to assess lighting and line-of-sight studies to assess terrain. We also develop landscape and water management plans.Having our own in-house team develop the design before engaging our partners speeds up the process by minimizing unnecessary back and forth. By finalizing the design before we seek out quotes on materials, we’re able to provide clients with more accurate estimates in a streamlined manner. We’ve also standardized the format in which we deliver the designs to suppliers, making it easy for them to quickly turn around proposals so we can finalize the bid.
- DSD has filed several design and functional patents to address previous issues
For example, we’ve developed low-cost water management and icicle prevention systems to protect pedestrians that might be walking beneath canopies during the freeze-thaw cycles of late winter and early spring.
- DSD offers competitive financing through its access to capital and optimization of cost and energy.
In addition to our in-house team and strong stable of partners, DSD also finances projects through our backing with BlackRock. So we not only design and build, but own and operate solar installations, allowing us to streamline the process for customers, add consistency and certainty to the project, and extend the life of the installation.Ultimately, we look at the entire picture. We consider the nuances of every site to find the sweet spot between cost and energy output, so we can offer the most kilowatt-hours at the lowest possible price.
With an experienced team, strong partners, available financing, a standardized process, and product innovations, we’re able to smoothly and efficiently deploy complex solar canopy projects.
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