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What is a solar tree?

You can get a solar array that’s designed to resemble a sculptural tree with foliage made of solar panels

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    sun in clear blue sky

    Solar trees are typically used for commercial applications rather than residential properties. These arrays, which are artistic designs that resemble the structure of a tree using solar panels as "leaves," don't produce as much electricity as rooftop solar arrays, but they do decorate urban spaces and increase public awareness of the beauty of solar energy.


    Key insights

    • Solar trees are as much a form of art as they are a source of electricity.
    • Typically, solar trees are seen on commercial properties rather than residential properties.
    • Currently, the cost makes solar trees an unrealistic investment for homeowners.

    How does a solar tree work?

    Like standard solar panels, solar trees convert sunlight into electricity that can be used to provide power. According to Jay White, chief scientist of Aquion Energy, a manufacturer of batteries and battery systems for solar energy storage, "The photovoltaic 'leaves' of the solar tree capture sunlight and convert it to power, which is then sent down the structure's trunklike central pillar to an internal battery. Many designs have rotating panels that can move throughout the day to gather sunlight."

    As the sun moves across the sky, solar trees move in lockstep with the sun to maximize exposure. This is different from how standard solar arrays work — typical systems are fixed to the surface of a rooftop or the ground and can't follow the sun as it moves from east to west. The internal battery in the solar tree can store electricity to power specific applications, like outdoor lights or car charging stations, or to supplement electricity provided by a standard solar array.

    What are the benefits of solar tree design?

    According to White, while solar trees "have a limited power generation potential," they have other advantages over typical solar panels. The goal of many solar trees is to "create public awareness of renewable energy by encouraging people to observe and interact with solar in innovative ways," explained White.

    Solar trees create public awareness of renewable energy by encouraging people to observe and interact with solar in innovative ways.”
    — Dr. Jay White, chief scientist, Aquion Energy

    They "provide vitality as well as shade while taking up very little space. These trees could be used in a variety of ways by a creative mind: shade for city sidewalks, parking lots and playgrounds, among other things."

    Solar trees have the following benefits:

    • Generating electricity: Solar trees generate electricity that can be used to supplement the electricity production of a larger solar array.
    • Providing artistic beauty and whimsy: Solar trees are striking in appearance, defined by sleek lines and featuring unusually shaped solar panels arranged in a unique configuration. Their size is comparable to that of an actual tree. This gives solar trees a whimsical look that draws attention and beautifies the surrounding landscape.
    • Taking advantage of vertical space: A solar tree occupies space in the air, not on the ground. This makes solar trees an excellent fixture in parks and on lawns.
    • Giving shade: In densely populated urban spaces, especially in warmer climates, solar trees provide welcome shade as well as electricity.

    Are there any downsides to a solar tree?

    When you’re considering the downsides of solar trees, it's important to remember this is relatively new technology that's changing and improving over time. As the technology matures, some of these problems may be solved with improvements.

    Some of the downsides of solar trees:

    • Moving parts: While a standard rooftop solar array has no moving parts that can break, many solar trees have moving parts that may require maintenance over time.
    • Cost: A solar tree can cost as much as $100,000, which puts these systems out of reach for most residential customers.
    • Output: According to White of Aquion Energy, typical solar trees may generate between 1.7 and 16.5 kilowatts of power. However, a typical commercial rooftop solar array can generate 200 kW, according to a report from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

    Are solar trees expensive?

    Solar trees are generally pretty costly when considering the amount of power they generate. This is why most solar trees aren't found on residential properties and are more commonly commissioned by commercial entities. The trees are less a significant source of electricity and more a visual symbol of a business’s commitment to solar energy.

    Solar tree vs. solar panels

    Aesthetics has never been a hallmark of the rooftop solar panel array. Roof-mounted panels are valued for their utility rather than their looks — they're efficient producers of power for both commercial and residential property owners.

    By contrast, solar trees are less efficient than most rooftop arrays in terms of producing electricity, but many users find them beautiful (or, at the very least, visually interesting), and they call attention to the benefits of solar power. In addition, solar trees can easily be erected in densely populated areas because they're built up, not out. They can also deliver power to out-of-the-way spaces in parks and open green areas.

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      FAQ

      When was the solar tree invented?

      Solar trees date back to 2007, when a Welsh industrial designer named Ross Lovegrove conceived of a large structure with an organic design consisting of multiple curved stems topped with photovoltaic cells.

      Where are solar trees most used?

      Solar trees are typically found in urban areas on commercial properties. Due to their ornamental nature, they're often placed in areas where they will be highly visible and enjoyed by the public, much like a sculpture.

      What is a solar-powered supertree?

      The term "supertree" refers to a collection of extra-large solar trees found in Singapore's Bay South Garden. Each tree can reach up to 50 meters tall— the equivalent of a 15-story building. There are 18 trees in all, only 11 of which are fitted with photovoltaic systems to generate electricity for the nearby conservatories.

      Bottom line

      Solar trees are sculptural. They’re not just a utility for generating electricity; they're also a tool for raising awareness about the benefits (and beauty) of solar energy. Solar trees can be used to decorate an urban landscape while also delivering minimal power to indoor or outdoor spaces. Although typical solar trees aren't meant for residential use, this may change as solar technology evolves.

      ConsumerAffairs writers primarily rely on government data, industry experts and original research from other reputable publications to inform their work. To learn more about the content on our site, visit our FAQ page.
      1. National Renewable Energy Laboratory, "U.S. Solar Photovoltaic System and Energy Storage Cost Benchmark: Q1 2020." Accessed June 15, 2022.
      2. CNN, "Solar-powered 'supertrees' breathe life into Singapore's urban oasis." Accessed June 15, 2022.
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