Envision's "Solar Groves" Let You Park in the Shade and Recharge Your Car

Last Updated May 6, 2010 5:54 PM EDT

There are many solar companies out there, yet solar electricity is not yet a huge market in the U.S. Some $1.4 billion in venture capital flowed to this $4 billion industry in 2009, and solar revenues were up 36 percent in 2009. The key is finding a niche, and Envision Solar (EVSI) is doing that with creative products tied to electric car charging.

Envision has cut a swath in the relatively conservative world of alternative energy, lining up customers such as Chevron Energy (CVX), Sun Edison, Dell, Johnson & Johnson (JNJ), the University of California and McDonald's (MCD), and on May 3 it went public. CEO Bob Noble said that going public gives the markets "a tangible way to participate in our company's growth." Envision, which calls its vision "solar you can see," is also working with strategic private partners to secure up to $5 million in new financing.

Noble says Envision is something of an accidental company. Noble was an architect at Tucker Sadler in San Diego when the company was approached by California-based Japanese electronics company (and solar panel maker) Kyocera to create solar carports. The creatively designed result was the Kyocera Solar Grove, completed in 2005 in San Diego. The "trees" consist of 64 grouped Kyocera panels, providing 17 kilowatts of electricity and shading eight parked cars in the process.

"I googled 'solar car port" and there was nothing there," said Noble. "Nobody was promoting solar on top of parking lots or garages. I realized there was an enormous potential market here for distributed solar." Electric car charging, under the CleanCharge banner and in partnership with such companies as Coulomb Technologies, is an optional extra. The solar panels are grid-connected, and can sell electricity back to utilities in states with so-called "net metering" laws. Or they can recharge EV batteries.

The market for public EV charging remains a huge question mark in 2010. Considering that very few cars are on the market or in employees' garages, much of what has been done so far with parking lot plug-ins could be seen as window dressing by companies that want a good environmental image. But Envision has gotten some business.

There is a solar grove at Dell's headquarters in Round Rock, Texas, consisting of 11 grid-connected solar trees with 56 shaded parking spaces. The system, completed last year, produces 100 kilowatts, and displaces 221,000 pounds of carbon dioxide annually. Another solar grove (14.72 kilowatts) incorporating EV charging is at the Pacific Beach McDonald's outlet in San Diego.

Envision also sells the Solar LifePort, a prefab, assemble-it-yourself 4.8-kilowatt solar generator and car-charging station that doubles as shelter for your car. It's a bit pricey at $45,000, but you can tap into a $2,000 federal tax credit for generating your own solar power and a second one (covering 50 percent of installation, up to $2,000) for at-home car chargers. The market for this kind of product will depend largely on how well the public accepts the offerings -- including the Nissan Leaf, Chevrolet Volt, Fisker Karma and Coda sedan -- headed for the market by the end of the year.

Envision has a new solar grove with car charging going up at battery maker Axion Power in Pennsylvania, and is working on another one for an East Coast theme park. A gasoline retailer is also considering adding branded solar charging. "There's tremendous interest in this," Noble said.

Envision is also working internationally, and is designing a solar master plan for the Indian city of Gandhinagar in Gujarat. "Solar planning like this is becoming important for both cities and regions," Noble said. "It's more than just LEED-certified buildings."

Photo: Envision Solar