The future of parking lots: What might happen?

Tony Dominksi
Published on: 
Friday, July 1, 2016

In the future, there will be parking lots…but not as we know them today. Parking lots will be fundamentally transformed by a Second Electrical Revolution, a Green Infrastructure Revolution, and the rapid shift of mass consciousness to an eco-friendly Spaceship Earth Paradigm.

Second electrical revolution

The electrical grid was put into place nationwide only a century ago. Suddenly, this grid model of central generation, transmission and metering is morphing as demand soars globally. Per capita use of electricity will likely quadruple by 2050. Economical electric cars will replace their polluting, thermodynamically inefficient cousins. High-efficiency heat pumps will replace natural gas for space and water heating. Hydrogen fuel cells will power trucks and buses and supply buildings with both heat and electrical power. Most of the fourfold increase in electricity consumption will be needed to run 300 million electric passenger cars, 100 million electric trucks and 200,000 electric buses.

Green infrastructure revolution

The “down the drain” model of urban water management has delivered water shortages, water pollution and declining coastal fisheries. The alternative of naturalizing urban hardscapes is cheaper, faster and better, because it offers the prospect of a new urban water supply gathered in cisterns and groundwater.

Spaceship Earth paradigm

Although the concept of our planet as a “biosphere” emerged nearly 150 years ago, we’ve only recently seriously acknowledged the Earth as a fragile life support system influenced by human activity.  As the Smithsonian noted at a recent forum: 

Humans are transforming the climate and environments of the Earth at an accelerating rate through agriculture, urbanization, transportation, the use of fossil fuels, and many other activities. Our global imprint, and the certainty that more than seven billion people will profoundly change the environment and biota of the planet for many generations to come, have led many scientists to recognize a new period of geological time called the Anthropocene, or Age of Humans…To make a livable Anthropocene, we must use our scientific knowledge to forecast environmental change and develop more resilient societies and cultural institutions that can adapt to the changes we can no longer avoid.

Parking lots today and tomorrow

People today are not concerned with parking lot asphalt being baked by the sun and polluted water draining into the local stream or bay. Customers are happy for the parking, seemingly oblivious to the waste of solar energy and sun-distilled water coming down as rain. But increasingly, the carrot of stable energy prices and satisfied customers and the stick of climate change, rising energy prices and more stringent water codes will cause parking lot redesign to become a priority. The crème de la crème of parking lots will feature electric car charging, hydrogen fuel fill-ups, solar canopies, LED lighting, porous paving and bioswales.

In dry urban areas, cisterns will store the rain dripping from solar canopies. In windy areas, low-rpm vertical axis windmills will advertise the public-spirited impulse of the establishment. Parking lot energy harvest and storage will bring forth a new crop of integrated zero-energy commercial buildings. The best parking lot energy practices will also include electrical storage batteries, heat pump geothermal energy and underground hot/cold thermal storage tanks.

Trends from 20,000 feet

The revolutions in electrical use, green infrastructure and Spaceship Earth consciousness are already shifting the economic playing field. The transition of the United States to mostly renewable electrical energy within a half a century looks inevitable. A new class of Spaceship Earth-minded consumers is demanding it. Governments, universities, municipalities and even private corporations are setting carbon dioxide reduction goals. The costs of photovoltaics, wind power and battery storage are steadily falling.

The transition from generating 470 gigawatts in 2015 mostly from fossil fuel to 1,900 gigawatts of renewable electricity by 2050 will require a huge capital investment. However, the return on investment in improved health, a stable world climate, new clean tech jobs and predictable, moderate cost energy will be huge. Imagine, in the United States alone, 500,000 utility-scale wind turbines and hundreds of square miles of solar installations. Excess renewable power will be used to manufacture hydrogen fuel.

Rethinking the lot

Parking lots have a unique role in this renewable transition. The visibility of solar canopies and car charging stations will increase consumer energy literacy. Parking lots alone might provide 20 gigawatts of delivered power. This amounts to 4 percent of all current grid electricity use or 1 percent of renewable electrical energy in 2050. Parking lots will host many of the charging stations needed to power huge new fleets of electric vehicles.

The redesign of watershed-friendly parking lots is mostly in the research and pilot project stage. However, drastic water shortages in the western United States may kick-start the designation of parking lots as viable green infrastructure. In urban areas, rainy day discharge of sewage from combined sewer/storm water pipes can be mitigated by retrofitting old parking areas with porous paving or bioswales. The National Estuary Program will be a supportive partner in coastal urban areas.

Getting to tomorrow

Arriving at this vision will require a sturdy mix of research and development, venture capital, streamlined permitting, public policy changes and marketing. Parking’s future will begin with pilot projects funded by early adopters. Who might these early adopters be?

A shortlist includes automobile companies (electric vehicle sales), retail chains (heavy energy use, recharging of customer cars), high-end retail and home improvement. Universities, municipalities, airports and hospitals will join the movement.