France has mandated that private car parks are covered with solar panels, should the UK do the same?

This article was written by Matt Stimpson.  Matt leads Vectio’s UK team. He has over ten years of transport planning experience.

There is no doubt that transport and energy are inextricably linked. Transport accounts for around 30% of carbon emissions worldwide but in return, the network facilitates the movement of people and goods necessary for the economy and society to operate.

The subject of Energy has been at the top of the agenda of late; since the illegal invasion of Ukraine, it has been a staple in the headline news and as a consequence of Western Europe’s longstanding dependency on Russian Gas most of us are now facing a winter where we try to strike the right balance between not feeling too cold versus the prospect of a very high energy costs. 

In order to resolve this issue, and to ensure that we are never held to ransom by rogue states again, we need greater energy independence and to fulfil this goal, new ideas are needed to compliment the tried and tested sources of generating energy. I am pleased that in the UK, new nuclear projects such as Sizewell Point C have received state backing and Rolls Royce’s more nimble proposal of siting 20 mini-reactors around the UK are progressing. Further news on this subject emerged last week with the announcement that national legislation which restricts the development of new onshore wind farms will be relaxed, and the approval of a gem of a new coal mining facility in Cumbria which had cross-party support locally. 

As I have followed this scramble to secure new energy sources in the news, I was impressed by what seems like a sensible idea from the French; mandate large car park owners to equip their car parks with solar panels. I’m sure this policy has its origins in the drive for Net Zero rather than as a response to the energy crisis but credit where credit is due, this would represent a more productive use of these surface areas than the single use of accommodating dormant vehicles. It will also satisfy land use planners who often complain about surface level car parks being an inefficient use of space. Furthermore, I’m sure many would agree when I suggest that the sight of solar panels is more -fitting within urban environments rather than in rural areas, where early examples of solar farms have to-date been typically located in the UK. 

The plan from the French, is to generate a modest 11 gigawatts of power by requiring existing and new car parks with space for at least 80 vehicles to be covered by solar panels. The owners of car parks with between 80 and 400 spaces have a reasonable timeframe of five years to install the equipment to accord with the new requirements, whilst operators of those with more than 400 will have three years. In terms of the proportion of the site that is needed to be covered, at least half of the area of the larger sites must be covered by solar panels.

Upon reading this new policy requirement, my immediate thoughts were, would a similar policy be appropriate or viable in the UK?

Well, my experience of surface level car parks in the UK is that they are often a temporary facility provided by landowners who use them for a passive income from parking fees, while either waiting for land values to increase or while planning permission for a more ambitious development is sought, so any mandate to provide additional infrastructure would have to be factored in these business plans. However, surface level car parks are often long-term fixtures too which consume large areas outside supermarkets, airports, stadiums, university campuses, and shopping centres. These sites are often monitored by private operators and are also typically located in areas that are not overly sensitive to development, often making them suitable sites for such development.

Of course, there are environmental and cultural differences to the UK and France which might not make the UK as suitable for this nature of policy, the UK does not have the same sunlight hours as France, and, car canopies, which set a physical precedent for solar cover have always been more common on the continent. All these matters would need to be investigated as part of any viability assessment underpinning any future policy. Of course, it could be the case that a policy might not be required at all if landowners are sufficiently incentivised by a second source of income and the implementation process is eased via a relaxed or permitted planning mechanism which could expedite such a process.

What could be the opposition? Solar panels have never been regarded as being particularly sightly so I would expect some push back on aesthetics, however the scope of this argument could be limited by countering that solar technology is better suited in urban areas rather than green areas, and that car parks are not normally sites of outstanding natural beauty to begin with. Even the most sceptical should be able to sympathise here. I also think we should look to draw the energy from the areas that consume the most energy.  

In terms of technical constraints, columns that support the weight of the solar canopies would need to be integrated with car park layouts and the cumulative land take impact of the need to house these columns alongside existing lamp columns may mean that a small number of parking spaces are lost across any given car park. The potential impact on visibility splays would also need to be considered. Additionally, we would also need to factor in that some car parks may already be quite shaded or not particularly exposed to light, this could be the case in Scotland or parts of northern England, and therefore mandating the landowner to install solar panels would be a fruitless endeavour in these cases.

In response to any criticism of such a policy, additional benefits for users could be championed too, such as cars being better protected from the elements, as they should be somewhat shielded from excessive sun, rain, and snow by the canopies.

In any case, it is clear that the transport network will gradually adapt to meet modern challenges and us in the transport industry are keen to engage with stakeholders to assist with these changes.

This article was written by Matt Stimpson.  Matt leads Vectio’s UK team. He has over ten years of transport planning experience.