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What Are Solar Trees, and Could They Replace Solar Panels?

What Are Solar Trees, and Could They Replace Solar Panels?


At first glance, solar trees might seem impractical — more art than function when compared to the best solar panels. But solar trees offer a few surprising benefits over their ground-mounted counterparts


Did you know that the shape of airplane wings were designed to mimic the sloped wing tips of eagles? That the ridges on whales’ fins that create an aerodynamic flow in water inspired the shape of the modern wind turbine? That termites drilling holes in their mounds to cool down in the desert summers influenced a method for designing more energy-efficient buildings?

Biomimicry has long been one of my favorite growing areas of science and sustainability — emulating models, systems or elements of nature to solve complex human problems. After all, mother nature has been around a lot longer than humans; she has a lot to teach us. So, as a specialist focused on solar energy, I’ve often wondered what nature can teach us about how to capture our power from the sun. Enter solar trees. 

What Are Solar Trees? 

A solar tree is a device resembling a tree in shape, but with photovoltaic (PV) panels in place of its crown. The “leaves” of the tree capture solar energy and convert it to electricity, with branches funneling that electricity down through a trunk and into a central battery within. In essence, they provide the same benefits as solar panels, but they use only a fraction of the surface area necessary for an array of solar panels.       

Solar trees are not a new invention, but they’re enjoying a rising popularity. Most of our readers may recognize the most iconic solar trees in Singapore’s stunning Gardens By the Bay, as seen in productions like Crazy Rich Asians and The Bachelor.

As they exist today, more solar trees raise public awareness around sustainability than are used to generate residential or commercial power. What’s more, the trees are still perceived as “futuristic,” but it might be time we start shifting our mindset about these inventions by incorporating them into our vision of what sustainability looks like in practice. Here’s why:

Benefits of Solar Trees

At first glance, solar trees might seem impractical — more art than function when compared to the best solar panels. But solar trees offer a few surprising benefits over their ground-mounted counterparts, including:

  • Solar trees preserve land: Since solar trees are vertically integrated, they require significantly less land than solar farms. The same logic would apply to a high-rise being able to fit more residents than a one-story house. Plus, because of their greater heights, the panels may receive more sunlight than a ground-mounted or roof-mounted arrangement would.
  • They can provide habitat for rare flora and fauna: Solar trees like those in Singapore’s Gardens By the Bay are large enough to host tropical flowers, vines and plants on its trunk and branches. These valuable habitats provide homes for plants and animals, protecting biodiversity in urban areas. 
  • Solar trees require little maintenance: Besides cleaning debris off the solar panels every now and then, solar trees are standalone electrical units requiring little to no maintenance.
  • The trees cool heat islands: By creating shade in urban environments, solar trees reduce the amount of thermal energy that is reflected off of urban surfaces like asphalt, concrete and brick. This can combat the most deadly effects of climate change within cities.
  • They increase awareness of clean energy: The striking structures are immediate attention-getters, conveying a message of creativity, resourcefulness, humility and the need to incorporate sustainability into everyday life. We see similar art installations at work across the world, such as the Terra pavilion in Dubai.

Solar Trees Vs. Solar Panels

We mentioned that solar trees serve essentially the same purpose as solar panels but require a much smaller footprint to do so. But are there any other significant differences outside the trees’ widespread adoption? Let’s dig in.

Efficiency

Solar panel efficiency is a measure of how much energy is produced relative to the amount of sunlight that strikes the panels. So, to compare a standard solar array and solar trees in terms of efficiency, we’d need to know the specs of the solar cells used within the tree. 

However, when it comes to space efficiency, trees take the crown. This solar tree in West Bengal, India produces enough energy to power five homes in the U.S. Solar trees in Lynn Haven, Florida are capable of powering six to seven homes. Instead of using an entire roof to produce this electricity, the trees do so using only a few square feet of ground space. 

Cost

Since solar trees are still rare in the U.S., the average installation cost is high. According to top solar tree company Spotlight Solar advertises total pricing to be $40,000 to $80,000. Based on current average solar costs, you could buy a 15-kW to 30-kW solar panel system (for context, the average home needs a system between 5 kW and 10 kW). 

Of course, the complexity and size of the solar tree will influence the final price. Until solar trees reach the commercial mainstream, demand will limit their widespread availability. 

Storage and Distribution

Solar trees are used to produce electricity that will be used onsite. Storing and distributing the energy generated by the trees (like solar farms and power plants do) would require larger solar batteries and complex systems of transmission.

Utility

While solar panels are used primarily on rooftops or mounted on the ground, solar trees offer a different type of utility. In addition to energy, they provide shade and whimsy while taking up minimal surface area. A creative mind could find endless uses for these trees: shade for city sidewalks, parking lots, playgrounds, backyards and more. This brings us to…


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In an interview, famed astronomer Neil DeGrasse Tyson explained that we already have flying cars, in a way, because tunnels and overpasses allow cars to access the third dimension. By that logic, India has invented ‘flying solar panels,’ which are being suspended above irrigation canals to cut down on the evaporation of precious water droplets by providing shade from the sun’s evaporating heat.


The Future of Solar Trees

The metallic, modern look of solar trees might turn off the average reader, but keep in mind that as the technology improves, investment flows and demand increases, they’ll become much more similar in appearance to real trees or other plants. This modern mimicry will allow us to blend the trees into our forests, yards, coastlines, parks and cities. 

Apart from residential applications, here are a few of our favorite ideas for the uses of solar trees:

  • Shade along highways or agricultural areas
  • Artistic installations in public parks, outdoor malls and gardens
  • Energy sources for carports and parking lots

Solar trees may still be a few years from the mainstream, but relative to other solar panel alternatives like solar roads, they offer a lot more practical value. The efficiency and versatility of the trees make them ideal for cities and densely populated areas, making us think they will be commonplace sooner than you might expect. 

Looking to “Plant” a Solar Tree?

The options are still somewhat limited, but there are a number of organizations that can install solar trees throughout the U.S. We’d recommend starting with these companies:

Smartflower

Smartflower offers stunning designs of solar devices in the shapes of trees and sunflowers, with solar petals tracking, opening and closing with the sun for optimal energy conversion. We’re talking about premiere trees here. Each tree has an output of 2.5 kW at peak power, which is about half the power production of a small home rooftop solar system. 

Smartflower solar flower on lawn with two people and dog playing Frisbee
Courtesy Smartflower

Spotlight Solar

North Carolina-based Spotlight Solar produces models of several different types of solar trees. With flexible configurations, accessory options, efficient panels and quick assembly, Spotlight Solar’s trees serve as great options for public parks, carports and walkways.

Spotlight Solar solar tree models diagram
Courtesy Spotlight Solar

Beam Global

Founded in 2006, Beam Global (formerly Envision Solar) produces patented infrastructure products for the electrification of transportation. The San Diego-based company offers solar trees and solar carports as electric vehicle charging stations.

Beam solar trees shading parking spots
Courtesy Beam

Source:

Karsten Neumeister at EcoWatch



These windows are see-through solar panels

These windows are see-through solar panels


What if solar panels weren’t just on the roof?


In a recently built office building in Boulder, Colorado, there are solar panels on the roof. But the building also has one of the world’s first installations of solar-window technology—transparent panels that look like ordinary windows, but also invisibly generate energy.

“When you think about the commercial market, you can imagine big skyscrapers becoming vertical solar farms,” says Susan Stone, CEO of Ubiquitous Energy, the startup developing the technology, which is based on work that began at MIT. “You make that glass surface, which isn’t traditionally available for electricity generation.” Solar windows can also be used to replace ordinary windows in homes.

Boulder Commons, Colorado [Photo: © 2022 Ubiquitous Energy]

The technology works by capturing only part of the solar spectrum. “We actually let the visible light that our eyes can see pass right through our material,” says Miles Barr, cofounder and chief technology officer. “And that makes it look invisible to us.” Because typical solar panels absorb the full spectrum—making them appear black—the solar windows capture about a third less energy. But since they can be used in areas where regular solar panels can’t, they can help add to the supply of renewable energy.

Boulder Commons, Colorado [Photo: © 2022 Ubiquitous Energy]

The windows, with two panes of glass that are sealed together, have wires that can be connected either directly to something next to the window—such as a light or electronic blinds—or connected to a battery in the building or back into the electric grid.

Boulder Commons, Colorado [Photo: © 2022 Ubiquitous Energy]

The startup has spent several years developing the materials, including semiconductors that can selectively capture infrared and ultraviolet light, and ensuring that the product matches the performance and quality of nonsolar windows. Right now, at its pilot production facility in Redwood City, California, the company is making small window panels that have been installed in a handful of pilot locations, including the office building in Colorado. But it’s also preparing for larger-scale manufacturing, and developing processes to make the windows that can run on current window-manufacturing lines. “We’re bringing a disruptive product to market,” says Stone. “And we’re intentionally doing that without disrupting the supply chain.”


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Michigan State University [Photo: © 2022 Ubiquitous Energy]

Andersen Corporation, the international window manufacturer, is one of the startup’s investors and participating in a recent $3o million Series B funding round. “Anderson led the industry in transitioning to insulated-glass units and pioneered the use of low-E coatings, all of which improved dramatically the energy performance of our windows, and both have now become an industry standard,” says Karl Halling, treasurer of Andersen Corp. “Andersen really sees this investment in this technology as a continuation of that legacy.”

As manufacturing scales up, Ubiquitous Energy expects the windows to be around 30% more expensive than conventional windows. But if the windows can replace standard glass, the impact could be significant. The company has estimated that there are 20 billion square feet of glass installed around the world annually, and if all of it was producing power, it would result in a 10% decrease in global emissions. “When you think about the impact that this can have,” says Stone, “it’s huge.”

Source:

Adele Peters at Fast Company



Solar Farms Could Boost Bumblebee Populations, Study Says

Solar Farms Could Boost Bumblebee Populations, Study Says


A new study finds that installing solar farms could become a two birds, one stone situation, as these areas can also double as thriving pollinator habitats if land owners allow meadows to grow around the solar panels.


The study, from researchers at Lancaster University in the UK that will be presented today at an Ecology Across Borders conference, shows that installing solar farms could be greatly beneficial to nature.

“Our findings provide the first quantitative evidence that solar parks could be used as a conservation tool to support and boost pollinator populations. If they are managed in a way that provides resources, solar parks could become [a] valuable bumble bee habitat,” said Hollie Blaydes, associate lecturer and doctorate student at the university. “In the UK, pollinator habitat has been established on some solar parks, but there is currently little understanding of the effectiveness of these interventions. Our findings provide solar park owners and managers with evidence to suggest that providing floral and nesting resources for bumble bees could be effective.”

While there’s no doubt that solar farms are helpful in generating clean energy, some critics say that these projects require extensive amounts of land that should instead be left untouched. Blaydes notes that solar parks disturb only about 5% of the ground, and these areas can also create new habitats for vulnerable pollinators, whose numbers are dwindling.


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SOLAR FARMS ARE NOW STARTING TO REPLACE GOLF COURSES


Golf courses could be turned into something much more useful and eco-friendly — and some places are doing just that


The researchers note that there are benefits for land owners who want to install solar parks, too. These lands could become meadows, rather than turf, cutting down land management costs for maintaining grass and other interventions. Meadows could also support four times more bumblebees compared to land covered in turf grass.

Another interesting point of the study is that these solar farms could further support bee density up to 1 kilometer outside of the solar farms, and the pollinators could then tend to nearby agricultural crops as well.

The UK already has about 14,000 hectares of solar farms, which have gained both praise and grievances. But Lancaster University researchers continue to dispel concerns.

Another 2021 university study, in collaboration with Ludong University in China and University of California Davis in the U.S., found that solar farms produce “cool islands,” reducing temperatures by about 2.3°C (36.14°F) 100 meters around the solar farm. Cooling effects on a lesser scale extend up to 700 meters around the solar farm.Alona Armstrong, senior lecturer of energy and environmental sciences at Lancaster University and co-author of the cool islands study, said, “This heightens the importance of understanding the implications of renewable energy technologies on the hosting landscape — we need to ensure that the energy transition does not cause undue damage to ecological systems and ideally has net positive consequences on the places where we build them.”

Source:

Paige Bennett at EcoWatch



Solar farms are now starting to replace golf courses

Solar farms are now starting to replace golf courses


Golf courses could be turned into something much more useful and eco-friendly — and some places are doing just that


Few things scream ‘privilege’ the way playing golf does. Golfing has become a symbol of sorts, reserved only for those rich enough to afford it. The courses themselves have become a symbol: lavish, well-maintained, and large areas where people go about hitting the balls.

But the courses also pose a number of environmental problems. Despite being “green”, they don’t typically contribute to biodiversity, and often actually pose serious problems for local biodiversity, as they’re covered in short grass and frequented by humans. To make matters even worse, golf courses consume a lot of water. In the US alone, golf courses require over 2 billion gallons of water (7.5 billion liters) per day, averaging about 130,000 gallons (492,000 liters per day). However, some see an opportunity here — an opportunity to turn golf courses from an environmental problem into an environmental asset. How? By filling them with solar panels.

In New York, a 27-acre that started out as a landfill and then became a golf driving range in the 1980s was transformed into a solar farm in 2019.

“This solar farm is what hope and optimism look like for our future,” Adrienne Esposito, executive director of the nonprofit Citizens Campaign for the Environment, said in a statement. The non-profit had campaigned for the transformation of the golf course. “We know over the next 20 years, the sun will shine, the power will be produced and we will have clean power. We don’t know, and we may not want to know, the cost of fossil fuels.”

The move not only ensured electricity for around 1,000 houses in Long Island but it will also eliminate some of the pesticides and pollutants in the area — pollutants that the golf course used for maintenance. Overall, the move is estimated to generate $800,000 for local authorities.

This type of project is possible because of recent developments in solar panel technology. It seems like almost overnight, solar panels have become incredibly cheap, and it’s not just the panels themselves — a multitude of solar farm components are becoming cheaper, allowing solar energy to compete, even as the fossil fuel industry remains heavily subsidized.

“I think New York is at a critical time in its history. The state has had really ambitious renewable energy goals, and this is clearly a step in the right direction.”

Next Era spokesman Bryan Garner

Next Era itself is not entirely a renewable energy company but drawn in by falling prices, it’s focusing more and more on solar energy.

This is not the only project to turn golf into solar energy, and New York is not the only place where this is happening. Rockwood Golf Course in Independence, Missouri, has also gone through a similar transformation. In Cape Cod, Massachusetts, solar panels were chosen as the “lesser of two evils”, with the alternative being turning the golf course into housing, which would have caused more traffic and more pollution in the area.

“We like the fact that it will be used for solar,” said Chairman Patricia Kerfoot at A meeting ON THE PROJECT. “That is a policy of the town to increase solar as much as possible, that it will keep it open space, which is part of our local comprehensive plan, as much as possible.” 

It’s a perfect fit if you think about it — golf courses cover large areas of open land, which is exactly what solar farms also need. At the same time, the dropping prices of renewable energy make it a more attractive proposition.

These aren’t just isolated examples, a trend seems to be emerging, driven not just by decreasing prices of solar energy, but also by a decrease in the interest in golf. Between 2003 and 2018, golf saw a decline of almost 7 million players, and any hopes of turning the golf industry around were shattered during the COVID-19 pandemic. Halfway through 2021, the National Golf Foundation reported the closure of 60 18-hole courses, several of which have been replaced by solar farms.

But perhaps nowhere in the world is this trend as prevalent as in Japan.

Japan is turning its abandoned golf courses into solar farms

Japan even has a national plan to replace some of its golf courses with large solar plants.

This is remarkable because, despite declining costs of solar energy, Japan’s solar power is still far more expensive than the global average — and even so, the country feels like adding more and more solar farms. Renewable energy initiatives are welcome and heavily subsidized in Japan, particularly as the country is looking for alternatives to nuclear energy after the 2011 Fukushima plant disaster.

Japan’s golf courses were built during the country’s inflated-asset boom in the 1980s but interest continued declining as years passed. This is where solar energy enters the stage.

Solar energy has become a national priority for Japan, and the country has become a leader in photovoltaics. In addition to being a leading manufacturer of photovoltaics (PV), Japan is also a large installer of domestic PV systems with most of them grid-connected.


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HUGE SUPPLY OF WATER IS SAVED FROM EVAPORATION WHEN SOLAR PANELS ARE BUILT OVER CANALS


In an interview, famed astronomer Neil DeGrasse Tyson explained that we already have flying cars, in a way, because tunnels and overpasses allow cars to access the third dimension.


Naturally, the country also set its sights on golf courses, repurposing several of them for solar installations. The most recent of these, a 100 MW solar plant has begun operation in the Kagoshima Prefecture, becoming one of the largest photovoltaic facilities in the area.

In particular, rural golf courses in Japan were deemed as ideal places or new solar installations. A perfect example is up a mountainous road in Kamigori, in the Hyogo prefecture, where a new solar farm is installed in a former golf course link — generating enough power to meet the needs of 29,000 local households.

Another reason why golf courses are so attractive for solar investments is that the ground has already been leveled, and flood-control and landslide prevention measures are already in place. Essentially, golf courses check all the boxes for what you’d want in a solar farm.

All in all, a tide seems to be turning against some golf courses, and towards solar energy. Innovations on the technical side have made solar plants a cheap and competitive source of energy. The price of electricity generated by utility-scale solar photovoltaic systems is continuously decreasing, but solar plants do more than just offer cheap electricity — as the golf course showed, they have emerged as a space for sustainable innovation.

Source:

Mihai Andrei at ZME Science