Colorado business owner plants parking lot ‘solar trees’

By Bob Keefe

When Erin Geegan looks at a parking lot, she sees more than a spot to park. She envisions a place to generate electricity and help protect the environment – while also making a buck.

Zam Energy, Geegan’s Boulder, Colo.-based company, aims to help building owners turn their parking lots into renewable energy power plants by covering them with “solar trees” — canopy-like arrays of solar panels on 9-foot columns that can swivel, twist and collect the sun’s energy. Those solar trees, in turn, would help supply electricity for buildings and provide charging stations for electric vehicles.

Geegan grew up in Chicago but felt she belonged someplace else. As a student at Purdue University, she studied social statistics and environmental communications and started one of the university’s first food co-ops. “I always knew I needed to get out and into the mountains,” she says. So shortly after graduating, she moved to Colorado. “I was constantly finding a way to get out into Colorado’s wilderness, and was a pretty regular 20-mile hiker. It was really then that I realized I wanted to protect what we had.”

Geegan cut back on the hiking and camping five years ago when she had twins, a boy and girl. But getting outside with her children as much as she can – and protecting the outdoors – is more important to her than ever. “I really believe there’s something to nature-deficit disorder. People are inside so much that it adds to stressfulness.”

Zam Energy is Geegan’s second start-up company. In 1989, she founded a marketing and communications firm for computer-related companies, back when the Internet was still in its infancy. By the time she sold the company, called Interactive Papyrus, in 2000, it had 160 employees, $15 million in annual sales, and was doing pro bono work for wildlife organizations.

The idea behind Zam Energy was also rooted in technology. But Zam, whose name is derived from a Tibetan word meaning “infinite,” evolved dramatically from Geegan’s initial vision.

“I wanted to create something called ‘Out-Saving the Joneses,’” she explains, describing a social media application through which neighbors could try to best each other in their energy savings. But while doing research, Geegan learned about a company called Envision Solar, whose solar trees are designed for parking lots. She abandoned the social media idea and dug into creating solar-powered parking lots.

Under Zam’s business model, building owners lease the solar equipment for up to 30 years. Her company doesn’t make the equipment or install it, but she puts together the deals and helps building owners with financing, grant applications, and other details. “I’m looking at cities, municipalities, large college campuses — anywhere where there’s lots of open space and especially fleets of cars,” Geegan says. “In some cities, parking lots cover more than one-third of the metropolitan footprint.”

Each solar tree costs about $120,000-$140,000 and can cover about six standard parking spaces. Building owners can recoup costs for the solar arrays through savings on their monthly electricity bills. Zam recently inked its first two deals, both in Boulder, with a municipal parking lot and a local software company called Infotility.

The next step is plugging electric vehicles into Zam’s solar parking structures, which could also provide back-up electricity to buildings and even supply electricity to the public grid. Geegan has started another company called Evolution7 with a Denver-area smart-grid software designer to help make that happen.

This post originally appeared in OnEarth magazine in April 2012.