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?


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.

Inventions Wanted 001 – The Memory Bank

    In our age of technology new inventions flood the market daily, but the pace still isn’t fast enough for me. I can always think of new things I wished I owned or services that I wished existed. Here’s an example. I’d like an internet company where people could register photos by date and location, for sharing. I’m obsessed with memory, probably because I have such a bad one, and it would be great to go to such a photo database and ask if there are any photos of Maine Avenue, at Homestead Air Force Base, in Homestead, Florida from 1961-63? Or Air Base Elementary from the same time and place.

    If I had known how bad my memory would become when I got older, I would have taken one photo a day when I was a kid to document all the places where I lived and grew up. I lived in a lot of places and met a lot of people and I’d really, really love to see them now. Are there enough people who think like to me to start such a business?

    Imagine being able to input an address and get a list of photos taken near that address over a range of years. Or enter a person’s name and the name of a school and location and get a screen of thumbnails to click on. Even more fantastic is if such a photo database could be combined with a Virtual Reality viewer and I could walk from my old home to my old school via a series of stitched together images wearing VR glasses and then see a collection of mug shots of my fifth and sixth grade classmates. Cooler yet, would be the ability to click on a face and then see a series of photos showing that person growing old.

    Of course, back in the 1960s people didn’t take photos like they do now. There’s a chance that nobody took a photo of Maine Avenue back then, or even inside the classrooms at Air Base Elementary. My family tended to take pictures on special occasions, usually at Christmas.

    My parents would have me and my sister Becky walk outside where the light was good and snap a single shot of us in our new Easter outfits and then not finish the roll for three years. What I’d love to see now is pictures of houses, cars, streets, school rooms, stores, and all those places we hung out in daily or pictures of people not in my family that we used to know.

    Using the same system, users could register film and video clips, sound recordings and any other clues about the past. I even have a name for this hypothetical company: The Memory Bank.

    By the way, I tried to go back to Maine Avenue a few years ago. My old neighborhood was destroyed by Hurricane Andrew and bulldozed away. All that’s left is a vast close cropped field patterned with flat black streets that I imagined looked like a printed circuit board from the sky. Like a dummy, I didn’t take a picture that day. I wished I had.


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