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The technology behind Bristol’s Solar Tree


In April 2015, Bristol’s Millennium Square will see solar technology brought to life. The Energy Tree is a sculpture designed and fabricated by local artist John Packer, conceived by Demand Energy Equality and built in collaboration with the Bristol Drugs Project.

It is being ‘planted’ outside At-Bristol and used as part of their education programmes, as well as to spark public engagement with energy demand reduction and energy equality. Free and interactive functions, such as a phone charging and Wi-Fi, are embedded in the sculpture to draw in passersby.

As part of the project, Bristol Drugs Project – a charity that work with people across Bristol recovering from alcohol and drugs use – offered the DIY solar PV workshops to service users. The leaves created during these sessions now sit on the tree and represent the positive community experiences that helped to build it.

The design follows on from Demand Energy Equality’s 2012 Solar Tree – the brain child of a 13 year old, who suggested arranging solar panels to mimic natural tree growth to see if they capture more energy than for the same area of flat panels. 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.” Read more about the origins and aims of the Solar Tree.

On 21 April the Energy Tree will be ‘Switched On’, with talks from key partners celebrating the installation. The event is free and open to the public | 5.30pm – 7pm | Millennium Square

This article was contributed by Cat McLaughlin – Project Worker in Communications & Publicity at CSE and member of the Bristol Green Capital Partnership Energy Group. 


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