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

Did you know that aeroplane wings were designed to resemble the eagle's sloped wing tips? That the shape of the modern wind turbine was inspired by the ridges on whales' fins that create an aerodynamic flow in water? That termites drilled holes in their mounds to cool off during the desert summers influenced the development of a method for designing more energy-efficient buildings?


solar tree

Biomimicry has long been one of my favourite growing fields of science and sustainability — the practise of emulating natural models, systems, or elements to solve complex human problems. After all, mother nature has existed for a much longer period of time than humans; she has a great deal to teach us. As a specialist in solar energy, I've often wondered what nature can teach us about harnessing the sun's energy. Here come the solar trees.


Solar Trees: What Are They?

A solar tree is a structure that resembles a tree but has photovoltaic (PV) panels in place of the crown. Solar energy is captured by the tree's "leaves" and converted to electricity, with branches funnelling it down through the trunk and into a central battery within. In essence, they provide the same benefits as solar panels but require a fraction of the surface area of a solar panel array.


Solar trees are not a new concept, but their popularity is growing. The majority of our readers are likely familiar with the most iconic solar trees in Singapore's breathtaking Gardens By the Bay, which have been featured in films such as Crazy Rich Asians and The Bachelor.



Solar trees, in their current configuration, generate more public awareness about sustainability than they do electricity for residential or commercial use. Additionally, the trees are still viewed as "futuristic," but it may be time to reframe our perceptions of these inventions by incorporating them into our vision of what sustainability looks like in practise.


Solar Tree Benefits

Solar trees may appear impractical at first glance — more art than function when compared to the best solar panels. However, solar trees have several surprising advantages over their ground-mounted counterparts, including the following:


Solar trees conserve land: Solar trees require significantly less land than solar farms due to their vertical integration. The same logic applies to a high-rise having the capacity to house more residents than a one-story house. Additionally, due to their elevated position, the panels may receive more sunlight than a ground- or roof-mounted arrangement.

They can provide habitat for threatened and endangered species of flora and fauna: Solar trees, such as those found in Singapore's Gardens By the Bay, are large enough for tropical flowers, vines, and plants to grow on their trunks and branches. These vital habitats provide homes for plants and animals in urban areas, thereby preserving biodiversity.

Solar trees are relatively low-maintenance: Apart from cleaning debris from the solar panels on a regular basis, solar trees are self-contained electrical units that require little to no maintenance.

The trees act as a buffer against heat islands: Solar trees provide shade in urban areas, reducing the amount of thermal energy reflected off urban surfaces such as asphalt, concrete, and brick. This can help cities combat the most pernicious effects of climate change.

They raise public awareness about the benefits of clean energy: The visually arresting structures communicate a message of creativity, resourcefulness, humility, and the importance of incorporating sustainability into daily life. Throughout the world, we see similar art installations, such as the Terra pavilion in Dubai.

Solar Trees vs. Photovoltaic (PV) Panels

As previously stated, solar trees perform the same function as solar panels but with a much smaller footprint. However, apart from the trees' widespread adoption, are there any other significant differences? Let us begin.



Efficiency

The efficiency of a solar panel is a ratio of the amount of energy produced to the amount of sunlight that strikes the panels. Thus, in order to compare the efficiency of a standard solar array and solar trees, we'd need to know the specifications of the solar cells contained within the tree.

When it comes to space efficiency, trees, however, reign supreme. This solar tree in the Indian state of West Bengal generates enough energy to power five homes in the United States. Six to seven homes can be powered by solar trees in Lynn Haven, Florida. Rather than utilising an entire roof, the trees generate electricity using only a few square feet of ground space.


Cost Due to the rarity of solar trees, the average installation cost is high. Spotlight Solar, a leading solar tree company, advertises a total price of Rs35,20,000. You could purchase a 15-kW to 30-kW solar panel system based on current average solar costs (for context, the average home needs a system between 5 kW and 10 kW).

Naturally, the complexity and size of the solar tree will have an effect on the final cost. Demand for solar trees will limit their widespread availability until they become commercially viable.


Distribution and Storage

Solar trees are used to generate electricity for on-site use. Storing and disseminating the energy generated by trees in the same way that solar farms and power plants do would require larger solar batteries and more complex transmission systems.


Utility

While solar panels are typically installed on rooftops or on the ground, solar trees provide a unique utility. They provide energy, shade, and whimsy while occupying a small amount of surface area. A creative mind could find endless uses for these trees: shade for city sidewalks, parking lots, playgrounds, backyards and more. This leads us to...



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:

Along highways or in agricultural areas, there is shade.

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.



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.


-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.


Summary:

A solar tree is a structure that resembles a tree but has photovoltaic (PV) panels in place of the crown. Solar energy is captured by the tree's "leaves" and converted to electricity, with branches funnelling it down through the trunk. Solar trees are self-contained electrical units that require little to no maintenance. They perform the same function as solar panels but with a much smaller footprint. This solar tree in West Bengal generates enough energy to power five homes in the United States.


Six to seven homes can be powered by solar trees in Lynn Haven, Florida. Solar trees are used to generate electricity for on-site use. They provide energy, shade, and whimsy while occupying a small amount of surface area. Demand for solar trees will limit their widespread availability until they become commercially viable. Their appearance may turn off the average reader, but they'll become more similar in appearance to real trees or other plants.



Solar trees may still be a few years from the mainstream, but they offer a lot more practical value. Each tree has an output of 2.5 kW at peak power. This is about half the power production of a small home rooftop solar system. The efficiency and versatility of the trees make them ideal for cities.

 

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