In April 2012 we built the world's first DIY solar PV tree with community participation. There were several objectives behind the Solar Tree but the foremost was to find new and interesting ways to engage people on energy issues. By using art and sculpture (far more interesting than solar panels alone!) we hoped to engage individuals, households and groups with a different approach.
First we crowdfunded £5,000 from generous individuals, which was matched by a further £5,000 by Energyshare. Second, we worked with local growers at Edible Futures to identify a suitable location on their site in Brislington, east Bristol - the tree would power a new irrigation system for their plant nursery. Third, we worked with Bristol-based sculptor John Packer to bring the physical structure of the project into life. Finally, we invited 70 people from across the city - both individuals and groups from community organisations - to participate in three days of free DIY solar PV workshops to build the tree's solar leaves.
The tree was finished in September 2012 after a summer (and a bit more!) of hard work.
The back story
The science & a very smart 13 year old
The Solar Tree first formed as an idea when Demand Energy Equality heard of recent research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in America scrutinising the work of a precocious 13 year old, Adrian. He explored the relationship between the the Fibonacci sequence which dictates the angles at which tree branches grow and the collection of energy by solar PV. He proposed that by mimicking the way in which trees grow it might be possible to increase the energy captured per unit of surface area over the course of a year by an array of solar panels.
The MIT research shows using 3D (tree-shaped) solar in high latitudes, and within urban environments, gives the greatest advantages over the same surface area of flat panels. Jeffrey Grossman, the Carl Richard Soderberg Career Development Associate Professor of Power Engineering at MIT and leader of the research team, reports in a paper published in the journal Energy and Environmental Science that the greatest improvements came in “locations far from the equator, in winter months and on cloudier days.” Perfect for the UK then, we thought.
The artist & an opportunity
When we happened to find out about John Packer (an artist working in Bristol) who had actually designed a solar tree based on the same principles, we realised we faced a fantastic opportunity. Not only could we build a piece of public art and test out an interesting scientific proposal, more importantly we would be able to fund-raise to involve over seventy local people in learning about energy and building DIY solar panels - hopefully inspiring them to lower their energy demand and go on to teach others the skills they learned.
Fundraising & Preparation
At the beginning of summer 2012 we set about raising the money we needed to make the tree happen. Through crowd-funding website peoplefund.it we managed to encourage lots of generous people to give us a grand total of £10k. Supplemented by a grant from Lush we were ready to go. Over the summer we set madly about sorting everything necessary to make the project a success: signing up community volunteers through community groups and networks, preparing all the materials we needed (whether salvaged or bought) , ensuring the site was ready, working with John to deliver the tree structure on time, working with Josh to record everything on film, training facilitators and much more. The rest, as they say...