The Sustainability Irony of Suburban Solar Carports

Archimedes Muzenda
Archimedes Muzenda
Archimedes Muzenda is city planner and researcher focusing on African cities. He is a senior research associate at the African Urban Institute and author of the book, Dystopian Cities.

African cities are in a race to keep up with the global trend of environmental sustainability and renewable energy in urban areas. Concurrently, the rapid urbanisation worsened by inner city decay has led to the rise of suburbanisation in most African cities. As a result, the suburban areas and suburban commercial centres are gaining popularity, both among environmentalists and urbanists in African cities. Far off the beat however is the emerging trend of installation of solar panels on rooftops of parking lots at suburban shopping centres. While it appears as a noble initiative at face value, the underlying implications can be environmentally retrogressive.

The rise of suburban solar carports in African cities

The idea of solar carports in African has been advocated for mainly by retail companies who seek to reduce their environmental footprint. This is critical for their sustainable business competitiveness and reducing the energy costs of their business. In Nairobi, Kenya, two companies, SolarAfrica and Solar Century installed 3,300 solar panels at the car parking lot of the Garden City Mall a 32-acre Garden City Development along the Thika Superhighway. The solar carport which opened in September 2016 will be generating an estimate of 1,256MWh a year cutting carbon emissions by 745 tonnes a year[1]. Other than energy generation, the solar carport at the mall is intended to attract more customers for a weather protected parking facility.

Makro Stores Solar Carport

Not far from Kenya is South Africa, where Makro Stores is spearheading installation of solar panels at parking lots of its stores. After its first installation on parking lots on Carnival store in Brakpan, Makro Stores is now embarking on a countrywide installation.  Makro Stores has so far reported an estimate of 193 tonnes in carbon emissions, saving about 100 tonnes of coal and 267 000 litres of water. Solar panels on parking lots of shopping centres surely reduces operating cost of retailers, not to mention the environmental certifications they may get for energy efficiency there by increasing their competitiveness and lure more prospective investors who are concerned about the environmental sustainability of the companies.

Suburban solar carports around the world

It is out of these merits that solar panels on suburban parking lots has gained momentum globally. There is a growing number of solar carports mostly suburban shopping centres. Los Angeles, one of the most automobile dependent city in United States has been experiencing a rise of solar carports. The City’s Department of Water and Power has been embarking on installing solar panels at parking lots to maximise the unused space in parking[2].  In Hull, England the City has been installing solar panels on the multi-storey car parks generating energy which feeds into the power grid[3]. In June 2016, New South Wales’s Sydney Markets boasted the largest purposely-built solar carport in Australia, a total of 911kw of solar energy to the Market[4]. It is not exclusively an African cities phenomenon. Nevertheless, for African cities the trend has been in resonance with the increasing suburban sprawl most cities are experiencing. The urban population growth in African cities has led to suburban housing, increase in car ownership and automobile dependency and proliferation of suburban shopping centres. As if this trend is enough to squeal loud for urban sprawl renewal, the emergence of suburban solar carports is contrary.

Environmental morality and negative environmentalism

In recent years of environmental movement, there has been a rise in adoption of fragmented approaches to sustainability. Suburban solar carports are one of the environmental approach which lack holistic overview of sustainability in context of a city. Urbanists and environmentalists have been fighting urban suburban sprawl for long. In efforts to repair urban sprawl in emerging cities, solar carports provide cosmetics to environmentalism at the loss of sustainability progress. As Andres Duany characterised it, giving second breath of life to suburbia by putting an ethical overlay on it, the proliferation of suburban solar carports, portray environmentalists as living in harmony with suburbia.

The rise of automobile ownership and dependency in emerging cities is of critical sustainability concern. ‘Thanks’ to solar carports, for the environmental immorality of automobile dependency is now cushioned by solar carports while shopping centres lure more customers at a lower operating cost. On a high note though, the proliferation of suburban solar carports at city level stagnate the progress towards repair of urban sprawl. The sprawl repair efforts are affected by suburban automobile’s newly gained ‘environmental ethics’ for doing good to the environmental through renewable energy. In the end, the proliferation of solar carports yield negative environmental effects due to increasing automobile dependency and its contribution to carbon emissions.

In designing urban environmental solutions, be it energy, transport or vegetation preservation, it is critical to consider the holistic view. Small-scale environmental interventions can impact the sustainability of the city if not scale-proofed. Suburban carports (driven by retailers in most African cities and surprisingly by municipalities in developed economies) poses a challenge to overall sustainability. One of the worrying development is the rise of awards given to suburban solar panels for environmental achievement, an acknowledgement by environmentalists as sustainability in the age of sprawl renewal. As a result, the emerging trend of solar-carports proliferation in the name of environmentalism tend to portray that “suburbia is here to stay”.

More Viewpoints


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

Latest Viewpoints

The Geopolitics of Urbanisation in Africa

Editor’s Note: This Viewpoint has excerpts from the book, Dystopian Cities: How the Tyranny of Specialists Destroy African Cities, by Archimedes Muzenda...

Abandoned Buildings in Lagos, Nigeria

Lagos, Africa’s ‘first city’ is one the fastest growing megacity of the century, a city where the obligation to accommodate the ever-increasing population is...

On the Edge: Harare’s Urban Heritage and forces of Urban Informality

Historic buildings in Harare that shape the city’s urban heritage are on the verge of collapse. Efforts to prevent further demolitions and alterations have been initiated but are these efforts going to hold back the forces of informality?

UN Urban: The Politics of language in Human Settlements Financing

In the international development, the emergence of new ideas and policy issues as well as scarce funding for development have led to...

Debunking New Urbanism in Harare

Harare is evidencing a new wave of urbanisation and urban development in the past five years, characterised as New Urbanism, but is it so? If it is, how effective is its application in Harare?