Thanks to an initiative from Tucson Electric Power, Naranja Park attendees will find shaded parking underneath solar panels by the end of this year.
The utility company plans to install, operate and maintain two solar shade structures at no cost to the Town of Oro Valley. The agreement, which town council approved unanimously on June 19, allows Oro Valley to provide shaded parking for park goers, while TEP gets to harness the solar energy from those shade structures to meet its goal to provide customers with 30 percent renewable energy by 2030.
Two years ago, the town’s Fourth of July celebration, which was hosted at Naranja Park, drew several complaints from attendees regarding the lack of shade, according to Chris Cornelison, Oro Valley’s assistant town manager. Town staff had to break normal protocol and allowed patrons to bring their own shade structures such as tents and umbrellas to the event.
While TEP’s initiative won’t provide shade over recreational areas, it will prevent cars from baking in the hot summer sun.
The two structures will be between 9 and 12.5 feet tall, with the solar panels facing west and tilted slightly to capture the sun’s rays. The panels will cover the eastern half of the park’s soccer field parking lot, which consists of 90 spaces, and will come with LED lighting underneath.
“These systems would be TEP-generating facilities, they would be interconnected to our side of the utility meter,” said Justin Orkney, a renewable energy senior program manager with TEP.
The 30 percent renewable by 2030 goal is nearly twice the level that will be required by the state government in 2025. TEP’s efforts are focused on increasing wind and solar energy production.
At the council meeting, Orkney said to expect final engineering plans for the shade structures by August and for construction to take place from October through December, the project should wrap up by the end of the calendar year.
“Something like this would give our customers an opportunity to see some of the facilities that are generating renewable power, and at the same time gives us an opportunity to work with community entities,” said TEP spokesperson Joseph Barrios.
Councilmember Joyce Jones-Ivey asked about an alternative placement of the solar panel structures.
“It would be more practical, in my mind, to have the solar panels above where the public has to sit,” she said. “It’s really nice to go to a cool car, but if you’re out there on those fields watching your child play, it gets really hot.”
Camila Martins-Bekat, a TEP external affairs representative, said putting the panels in a place where children are running around could create a liability issue. Kristy Diaz-Trahan, the town’s Parks and Recreation director, pointed out that a solar panel structure couldn’t be installed as suggested by Jones-Ivey because a septic system is located underground.
“We put a man on the moon, how hard is it to put (a solar panel) over the septic?” asked councilmember Josh Nicolson.
To accomplish the relocation, the entire septic field would have to be moved, according to town engineer Paul Keesler, and there’s no simple way to do that.
“We would need to find another downgrade suitable area to relocate, and then pipe between the existing tanks and the new field,” Keesler said. “There aren’t any suitable areas down slope in this immediate vicinity. So the request would become a much more involved engineering solution. And that translates into actual construction cost.”
Vice Mayor Melanie Barrett inquired about whether the town should lease the land underneath the parking lot to TEP to use for the project, since the power generated from the solar panels belongs to the utility company, not solely the Town of Oro Valley. She also inquired into the possibility of the town constructing its own solar installation.
Martins-Bekat said that in these types of agreements, TEP normally requests an easement, which is the right to cross a property for a specific purpose or use, to conduct operational and maintenance needs.
Cornelison said the town staff has not been actively looking to install solar panels in parking lots. He reasoned that if the town owned the energy generated from the panels, it could only be applied to the Naranja Park facilities and could not be transferred to other areas, making usage difficult.
Town staff brought the proposal to council because TEP reached out to them with an appealing project.
The newly adopted town budget includes a new playground at Naranja Park, which entails increased need for parking, and it would require a “significant capital cost” from the town to install solar panel structures on their own dime, according to Cornelison.
During the construction phase, parking will be limited. Diaz-Trahan said the town will work with the various user groups at the park during those months to let them know where alternative parking is available.
TEP hasn’t gone to bid for this project yet, but anticipates spending between $150,000 and $200,000 from their shareholders.
The agreement between Oro Valley and TEP will last between 20 and 25 years. After that time, TEP could remove the solar panels completely, sell them to the town, or remove the solar panels and replace them with metal sheeting.
Another possibility is upgrading the panels at the end of the term or introducing new technology as it becomes available. The agreement includes a continuation of new methods, Martins-Bekat said.
“This is an area where every day, it seems like there’s something new, and so 25 years from now I can guarantee you that there’s going to be something else that we want to consider and so the agreement will contemplate the change out or improvement of the technology,” she told the council.
In the past, TEP had similar programs where they installed solar facilities at schools or community centers, Barrios said, but what’s different about this project is that they’re using the solar panels to shade cars.
It’s the pilot in a program that TEP hopes will enhance existing facilities that the community already enjoys. If this goes well in Oro Valley, they might do it again.
“At this point it’s certainly a possibility,” Barrios said. “We’re considering this a pilot and we’re interested in seeing how it’s received by members of the community. If it’s something that people are supportive of, our customers are supportive of, we would look at installing other facilities in other locations.”