Inventions Wanted #2 – The Solar Power Tree

Update 8/19/11: Kid tests out solar tree collector

I think crystal balls are showing households should become more energy independent, or at least, less dependent on distant sources of energy. The first line of attack on this problem is to just use less energy, but another solution, which for me is a long term solution, is to produce energy locally. This is neither easy nor cheap – $12,000 might buy me a modest system that would supplement my energy needs, but it’s doubtful that it’s cost effective. 12k is equivalent to 60 months of $200 payments, and that would buy a lot more power company energy than I would generate. In other words, generating your own energy isn’t about saving money. At least for now.

Owning my own energy producing system would get me some energy independence if we have blackouts or other failures of the central energy grid and would let me us less energy from polluting sources, or less energy from nations I don’t care to support. My worry is the energy production grids in this country won’t keep up with demand. Producing my own energy would reduce the load on the central systems, contributing to the common good, and give me some electricity when things are bad, contributing to my selfish interests. In other words, if the forecast is for global warming, I want to stay locally cool.

The easiest was to produce electricity at home is with a generator, but that’s not a long term practical solution if we’re talking gasoline generators. Fuel cells may become practical, and most homes are ill suited for wind or geothermal electric generation. The only other solution is photovoltaic panels. Now my house is completely hidden under a canopy of trees, which is a natural way to keep cool in the summer and save electricity to boot. Memphis, the city I live in, has so many trees it feels like the suburbs are really houses built in forests. And I don’t want to cut down my trees. I love the shade and they suck up lots of carbon.

The invention I would like to see is a solar power tree – a photovoltaic collector shaped like a big Christmas tree that I can raise above the tree line – but not look like a big eyesore. It could also serve a dual purpose of being a HDTV antenna or hold a satellite dish. I picture this device sitting on an extending pole that can be automatically raised and lowered depending on weather conditions. All the photovoltaic panels I’ve seen are flat, but flat panels are not something good to send skyward because of their aerodynamic drag. Trees, branches and leaves are a natural shape that’s suited to collect sunlight and handle strong winds.

What’s needed is the maximum surface area to collect energy that can easily shift to follow the sun, low weight, and high strength to handle wind and rain. It will also need to withstand lightning. I have no idea how to build such a thing, but if it was reasonable priced, worked well, and produced a decent amount of electricity I’d want one.

If a variety of solar energy collectors could be designed and marketed cheaply enough, that would have a major impact on society, because how would things be different if every house generated 20-80% of its own clean energy? I think a lot of people fear the world won’t adapt to dealing with global warming because it will require too much change from people. What if the changes required actually benefited people directly? Instead of making sacrifices, you bought something at Home Depot, like buying another appliance and it made your home better, is that such a sacrifice?

JWH

Supplemental 11/23/7.  I got to visit the Solar Decathlon in Washington, DC this past October and it furthered my desire for a solar collector shaped like a tree.  All the houses were built with the assumption they would be shaped and lined up for the maximum exposure to the sun.  This isn’t practical for retrofitting an older home, especially one where trees block the sunlight.  I asked about other kinds of solar collectors but didn’t find much encouragement for my proposed design.

Then Nanosolar was mentioned in the December 2007 issue of Popular Science as their Innovation of the Year.  The PowerSheet product is a cheap film-like material sold in rolls as a solar collector that can be applied easier than the more bulkier old-style box collectors.  It’s manufactured rather than assembled making it cheaper.  It’s not hard to imagine that this stuff being produced as solar leaves that could be assembled into three shapes.

Using fractal mathematics its probably possible to design an optimal pattern of leaves and branching that would work with the electrical wiring needed to channel electrons down the leaves, stems, branches and trunk, like the reverse osmosis of sap.  Further, it might be possible, within the need to be energy efficient, to design this solar collecting tree with servo motors that would keep the leaves and branches oriented to the sun.  If a complete system could be sold for $5-10k that produced enough electricity to supplement a normal house need’s then it might be practical for commercial success.

It would not have to have a battery system to be useful.  As long as a local collector reduces the overall drain on the grid providing power during the day, and using grid power during the dark, the overall effect would be to reduce dependence on foreign oil, reduce the carbon footprint of the house and improve the reliability of the grid system.

UPDATE 10-28-08

Open Energy Corporation shows off an energy tree prototype.


31 thoughts on “Inventions Wanted #2 – The Solar Power Tree”

  1. Dear James,
    I LOVE IT MAN!!!!!!
    I have research and developed solar inventions for 30 years now, and I love the tree idea. Great, Pacticle tree huger idea. Most of us tree hugars are to busy looking for some thing not in our hands.
    You have pointed out the plain obvious that most of us are to close to see.
    I love Trees!
    I Love Solar!
    and I love you!

    Nice job ! I can’t wait for the day I take my kids to the park and stroll on the path threw the solar forest that is suplementing my neighborhoods power demands.

    I just patented a regenerating portable solar generator, note – web site still under construction.

    However this makes my idea look like a toy in comparison.
    Again, nice job and thank you for sharing.

    Robert Hillegas

    1. Could an actual tree be bio-engineered? Genes from electric eels? I’ve always thought that trees resembled nerve cells which relay electricity, their roots already form a network system, and they are basically solar power plants to begin with. How to convert their natural energy to electricity seems to me to be the key issue.
      I like the idea of a coating as well, something I hadn’t thought of.

  2. Well Robert, it sounds like you are doing something real, and I’m only imagining things. Strangely enough I get a few hits now and then on my Solar Tree page because people are searching on the term “solar tree” – so the idea is out there.

    I do hope someone invents the thing because I’d like to join in on the solar revolution. A recent Scientific American story suggests that solar power could be applied across a vast scale of our needs. This would radically change our country, and hopefully for the better. And it’s all a matter of people choosing to make it happen.

    It was impossible to imagine the Internet revolution back in 1980s. So we have no idea how things will be like in another 20-25 years.

    What we don’t want is future like in the novel The Road by Cormac McCarthy. If more people read such realistic novels about the collapse of civilization maybe they’d take more of an active interest in alternative energy.

    Jim

  3. Your “Solar Tree” Idea is one of the best solar concepts I’ve ever heard. One problem I can perceive is that the design needed would take up more space = more wind resistance = likelihood of damage in wind and storms. You are trying to replicate nature which is a good but will it ever become reality? I hope so. I can only imagine a solar tree farm stretching from horizon to horizon. What a trip…And, thank you for thinking.

  4. Mainly I want a solar tree collector so I wouldn’t have to cut down all my trees to make a roof collector functional. Think of how they integrate cell phone towers into neighborhoods disguised as trees. I had to cut down one of my trees last year because it was growing too close to the house. It would be great to install a solar tree in its place.

    Jim

  5. Well, at dinner tonight i thought i had a great idea, come to find out you had it first! I take it no one has made or patented one yet? I am an electrical contractor and have been discussing the thought of the “solar age” with my partner for quite some time. I do beleive this can work! I am also a welder and beleive this would be the way to go when designing a weather proof system. Look forward to hearing back from someone!

    Nate Perkins

  6. I get one or two hits a day on this post and I’m guessing they all had this same idea. I’ve even seen a photo in a science magazine of a very weird version of a solar tree – it’s huge – totally unlike what I imagined, made out of concrete.

    I’m not an engineer but I think there will be two main problems to face. One is making it strong enough to handle wind and the other is designing it to deal with lightning.

    I don’t know how high the tree line is for the average homeowner. But I’m guessing it could be as high as a hundred feet. I picture the trunk being several concentric cylinders. So if you standardize on 30 feet, and you have four layers of trunk, you could reach almost a hundred feet. If the trees are shorter, use two or three layers.

    The trunk would have to be thick enough to house the extension mechanism and the wires. I think the final extension should have sensors for light and wind velocity. If the array of solar leaves could be turned to face the sun it would make it more efficient at producing electricity. In case of strong winds it should be able to automatically lower itself.

    Conventional solar collector boxes are rather heavy. A very strong tree could be made to hold them, but I think the new solar film technology should be used to make things lighter. With the film testing would have to be done to find the optimal size for the leaves and a mechanical branching structure to unfold them.

    I can picture all of this but I’m not inventor. I’m just talking off the top of my head hoping someone will market such an invention and tell me about it. The other factor is price. Right now buying a solar power system for a house is rather expensive. I’ve seen prices in the $20-50 thousand range. I think if a good system could be designed to sell for $15-20 thousand installed it might have more mass appeal to the public.

    Solar energy can supplement household energy, and it can be used to charge electric cars – so there are two ways it can save the buyer money. So if the combined savings might represent $300 a month, or $3600 a year, it would take many years to pay back the startup cost. If the system can be guaranteed to work for 10 years, it would earn $36,000. So you see if the system costs $36,000 it won’t have any selling appeal.

    My wife and I are probably spending $300-400 a month now on gasoline. If we could switch to electric cars and get our fuel from our solar collector that would make the solar collector a lot more valuable. The trouble is we use the cars during the day when it should be charging. What’s needed is a system to store collected energy. I have no idea about that, but I’m sure people are working on it. It could be as simple as making electric cars with two sets of batteries that are easy to swap out.

    Jim

  7. Great idea man. The problem though for inventors like me is that now that you’ve put the idea ‘out there’ if I were to develop the idea to the point where it could be patented I would have to include you in the patent too. So if you really want to see this come forth be prepared to share in the profits ;).

  8. You don’t need to build a synthetic tree, you only need to design a coating for the bark and branches of a tree that is bio friendly. the coating could route the electrons down to the ground where it could be collected and sent into the house.

  9. James,

    I thought I had this idea too! I like it.

    As far as your concerns about wind, rain, and lighting I think you’re on the right path to design something retractable. That way you could lower it whenever there is not enough sunlight – at night when winds are usually higher and you’re not collecting solar power anyway – or in a storm. This could be automated with a simple light sensor.

    Another idea would be to only approximate the tree shape. Something shaped like a multilevel patio umbrella might be nearly as efficient as a true tree shape but could be designed to fold up in high winds.

  10. Tommy, there would be infinite ways to actually engineer this idea so anything you do will be all yours. Ideas don’t count for much, it’s the tinkerers that do the real inventing.

    Bill, a multi-level patio umbrella would be another good way to go. I only suggested a fake tree so that neighbors might complain less about how such a device would look. I got the idea from cell phone towers and from looking at trees and thinking that leaves must be an efficient way to lay out hundreds or thousands of small collectors.

    I was thinking about this idea again last night. Imagine if every home and apartment building in America had solar energy collectors – how would that change our society. Whoever invents an affordable solar energy collector system is going to make it big. It’s got to be priced closer to a HVAC system than SUV.

  11. I am a landscape designer and I have had this same idea floating around in my head for the past six months or so. In fact I am putting together a project for a university course, in which I am creating a model landscape design that would incoroporate alternative sources of energy in an aesthetic and beautiful way. I think that this is a very powerful idea, and I’m glad to see that there are others who see it the same way I do.

  12. Wolf, this page gets a 2-3 hits a day. It’s already gotten 3 hits this morning. Which doesn’t sound like much, but I think it means somewhere in the world someone has searched on solar trees. That means the idea is occurring regularly. I just hope that someone invents the dang thing soon. I read about people getting solar panels for their roofs, but for me to do that I’d have to cut down some of my trees, and trees in my neighbor’s yards. That’s just not going to happen.

    In a couple years plug-in hybrid cars are going to hit the market and if they were paired with a solar collector, that would have an amazing impact on our economy and ecology.

    Jim

  13. If the collector could be intigrated into the leaves, kind of like Tommy Charles coating, a tree would orient the collector for you. Not all leaves are in 100% sun all the time, so a good starting place would be at what percentage of masking/coverage of all the individual leaves a small tree could still be healthy.

  14. Hello Jim, solar tree is hopefully going to be a reality sooner than later. I follow the OLED(organic light emitting diodes) developments quite closely and have suggestred recently to Professor/Dr. Tang @ U of Rochester (the father of OLEDs) my vision which is very similar to yours. OLED screens are also very effective thin light weight solar voltaic collectors which are made of very thin plastics, flexible in any shape.Hence your tree leaf. I think this collector could someday simulate your oak or maple in the front yard, power your house and light up at night or Christmas as your color requests dictate.
    Keep on thinking!!!!!

  15. HOW ABOUT ADDING A TINY AIR PISTON WITH A CHECK VALVE ON THE SOLAR LEAVES WHICH CONNECTS TO A MAIN AIR LINE WHICH WOULD POWER AN AIR DRIVEN GENERATOR.ALOT OF TINY THINGS WORKING TOGETHER CAN DO BIG THINGS.THINK ANTS.THE WIRING COULD BE RUN ON THE OUTSIDE TO COLLECT THE SOLAR ELECTRICITY FROM SOLAR CELLS AND THE ARRAY OF BATTERIES WOULD ACT AS A HEAVY BALLAST TO KEEP TREE UPRIGHT.SEEMS EASY ENOUGH JUST NOT SURE HOW COST EFFECTIVE.

  16. Jim,

    Love the solar tree…anything new on that?

    The Kiplinger Letter just wrote something about it…do you know what they were referring to exactly?

    Thanks,

    Steve Urell

  17. had an idea of a solar tree for a school project as well. may not be similar but here it is. some classmates stated that a tree only need its outer layer to survive, hence the inner compartments could be hollowed out and still allow it to live. solar leaves (http://www.inhabitat.com/2009/07/02/solar-ivy-photovoltaic-leaves-climb-to-new-heights/) could be altered and placed at the top just like real leaves. all the needed converters could be placed underground or in the tree itself depending on its placement. the best part would be adding an outlet on the tree itself, so that if they were to be placed in a park or somewhere near a bench, users could plug in their electronics to the tree.

  18. For stability of the tree, all one would have to do is think of the inner working of how trees grow verse the dynamics of how engineers allow concrete buildings to move 4 to 8 inches in different directions.

  19. James, and to whom it may concern,

    Lets set up an appointment to meet, phone or virtual. We are in R&D phase; we have been working on similar designs for the last 10 years.

    Please contact me,

    Juan Cervantes,
    CEO

  20. Read your concept with great interest, though I see I am very late to this party. I have been thinking lately that if we could derive electricity from leaves THEMSELVES then we already have a huge network of solar collectors in place all over the world. I have been astonished at the work already being done in this area, I’m including just a few links and I just started looking into this one hour ago!

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/09/11/scientists-draw-electrici_n_283244.html

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/09/11/scientists-draw-electrici_n_283244.html

    http://inhabitat.com/solar-ivy-photovoltaic-leaves-climb-to-new-heights/

    http://web.mit.edu/newsoffice/2008/oxygen-0731.html

    I began thinking on this after signing up for a solar energy course given by a local church group with guaranteed employment after completion (I am unemployed). I have also been a computer programmer , about 10 years ago, and have been re-learning the C++ language on my own (can’t afford school). In order to help speed the process and add to my resume, I got involved in an open-source volunteer application called Audacity which is mainly concerned with the analysis and manipulation of audio signals. However, we have users who do many varied things with the app, like analyzing sonograms, besides music creation. It occurred to me that light is a wave/signal, and our application could be used to analyze the efficiency of solar collectors and maybe even enhance the signal reception (getting ahead of myself here), but great ideas often begin this way.

    Anyway, I liked your idea and thought I’d send you what I’ve been thinking.

  21. In reply to:
    I have been thinking lately that if we could derive electricity from leaves THEMSELVES then we already have a huge network of solar collectors in place all over the world.

    I too have been thinking of something similar..

    What about the idea of a genetically modified tree that doesn’t just do photosynthesis, but also has some way of converting the solar energy into a useable energy for man..

    People would then be planting these trees instead of cutting them down.

    A tree that produces oxygen, stabilizes the ground and also produces a usable energy…. now that would be great.. 🙂

    Andrew

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