A Noble Mission to Turn Parking Lots into “Solar Groves”

12/9/08Follow @bvbigelow

Architect Bob Noble was the CEO of San Diego’s Tucker Sadler firm when Kyocera America asked if he would consider designing a “solar carport” for its San Diego headquarters, using photovoltaic solar panels made by Kyocera.

The request might have been a non-starter at any other venerable, 50-year-old firm. Solar carports, after all, have been done before. And Tucker Sadler is known for its work on major projects, such as the recent expansion of the San Diego Convention Center, the Christina Gateway master plan in Wilmington, DE, and the storefront, entry, and interiors for Barneys New York in New York City.

But Noble has long been a passionate advocate for sustainable design. When I first met him 15 years ago, he was the founding CEO of Gridcore International, a venture making fiberboard-like structural panels from shredded U.S. currency and recycled cardboard. So he jumped at Kyocera’s proposal.

“For me it was an exciting opportunity,” Noble says, rattling off his experience and credentials faster than I could write. I looked at him, exasperated, and he said, “Let’s just say I’m an eco-preneur.”

The result proved to be something of a revelation for Noble, who saw that parking lots represented an enormous opportunity for developing solar structures.

“Parking lots are big, hot, urban heat islands,” Noble says, working himself into another rapid-fire fusillade. “They’re bad for landscaping, bad for water drainage. They are the wasteland that you have to go through to get to a building.”

Instead, Noble argues that parking lots should be the giant canvas for integrating renewable energy technology with architecture and sustainable building design. He argues they are far better suited for solar arrays than the rooftops of commercial buildings, which are dominated by housings for mechanical equipment and worries about waterproof membranes. As a recently recruited San Diego Xconomist, Noble also will be making such argument on our forum.

Solar arrays like the “solar grove” that Noble created for Kyocera parking lot and at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colo., generate electricity above and shade the space below.

“Solar panels are inefficient, so you need very large areas,” Noble says. “All you have to do is look out the window of any office building and you can see where the space is. It’s in parking lots and rooftop parking structures. That’s where the opportunity is and that’s where the benefit is.”

For Noble, Kyocera’s solar grove became a springboard. He founded Envision Solar in 2005 as a firm that integrates photovoltaic panel installations with real estate development, planning and construction. “The solar part of solar parking lots, I would say is only about 1 percent of the headaches. These are building projects—and you have to bring in architects, engineers, building contractors, electrical contractors, and most solar installers don’t have a clue.”

Envision Solar generated about $3 million in revenue this year, overseeing solar installations in a variety of parking lots, including ResMed’s headquarters in suburban San Diego, UC San Diego, and St. Mary’s Medical Center in Apple Valley, CA. As the chief visionary, Noble sees similar arrays in the parking lots of shopping malls, zoos and sports stadiums, and he’s projecting revenue of about $25 million in 2009. Beyond that, he sees solar arrays shaped like mouse ears in the parking lots surrounding Disneyland and solar groves emblazoned with trademark stars around the Dallas Cowboys’ new football stadium.

“Solar installers don’t do designs like this,” Noble says of Envisions Solar’s projects. “These are objects of beauty and now they’re part of the palette that urban designers have to express our cultural values.”

In this way, Noble argues that installing a solar grove in a parking lot is the best way a big company can demonstrate its commitment to renewable energy and to mitigate global warming. “This is solar you can see,” Noble says. “We call it ‘the green halo effect’ and this is certainly what Kyocera has experienced.”

Noble also has developed solar-powered modules that can be shipped in two cargo containers and erected on site for sustainable housing, clinics, and schools in remote areas of Africa’s Cote d’Ivoire and the Togolese Republic. The firm also offers its solar module designs to U.S. homeowners as Lifepods, Lifeports and other projects—part of what Noble calls a solar cottage industry. These modular solar projects also have been featured on the Discovery Channel’s television series “Battleground Earth” and “Planet Green.”

“I gotta tell you,” Noble says, “Anything we build, it seems like it ends up on the Discovery Channel.”

Bruce V. Bigelow is the editor of Xconomy San Diego. You can e-mail him at bbigelow@xconomy.com or call (619) 669-8788 Follow @bvbigelow

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