Parking Will Be Cooler For Coachella Valley Students

Solar potential in Cathedral City | Photo: Chris Clarke | KCET

It's just one story in a whole lot of the same statewide: school districts across California are taking advantage of photovoltaic technology to cut down on their net power consumption and shade parking areas. But this particular iteration story is one that's very close to ReWire's desert-focused heart: the school district in question is Palm Springs Unified, where shaded parking spaces in the summer are almost a matter of life and death.

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The Desert Sun's K Kaufman and Bret Kelman quote a student that really sums the whole issue up:

In the Cathedral City High School parking lot, the persistent desert sunshine beats down on students' cars until the final bell rings. Senior Devin Ristaino rushes across the baking blacktop, trying to escape the parking lot before he is trapped inside by a traffic jam.

But the car, waiting all day for his return, feels like a preheating oven.

"It's like Thanksgiving," Ristaino said Monday, pointing to the car. "Only, you are the turkey."

Sometime before December, 10 schools in the Palm Springs Unified School District will have installed enough solar power generating capacity to meet somewhere between 60 and 90 percent of each school's power needs. Cathedral City High's array, the largest, will top out at just over 1.4 megawatts of generating capacity. And except for two schools whose infrastructure won't allow it, the solar panels will provide shaded parking spaces for students and staff.

The panels will be installed under a lease agreement with SunEdison, and the district will have the option of buying the arrays outright after 20 years.

For those ReWire readers who haven't spent time in the Coachella Valley in summer, a little explaining may be in order. During summer months, daytime temperatures in the Coachella Valley average well into the triple digits. They often top 110°F. Given the rampant, nearly uncontrolled sprawl in Coachella Valley cities, parking lots tend to dominate the landscape. This means that the urban heat island effect is especially pronounced. Those high temperatures and expanses of asphalt mean that temperatures inside vehicles can reach deadly highs in minutes. People returning to their cars crank their air conditioning to bring the temperature down to livable levels, using a significant amount of energy. Some motorists even leave their cars running during shopping trips to allow the AC to stay on.

And yet solar-panel carports are a relative rarity in the Coachella Valley, even as prices of solar equipment drop.

Putting solar carports at area schools makes especially good sense. Students will be returning to their cars in mid-afternoon, just as temperatures spike. Hopefully, this good idea will spread to commercial establishments and even municipal parking lots and street parking. After living in the Coachella Valley during too many triple-digit days for our liking, ReWire noted that we were remarkably reluctant to engage in the local economy. Who wants to trek out to buy towels if it means roasting like Devin Ristaino's Thanksgiving turkey? Solar-shaded parking could very well generate some indirect economic benefit along with a few megawatts per strip mall.

About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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