On a recent family summer road trip we found ourselves driving through the mountain town of Cherokee, N.C., which lies just outside the southern main entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (a must-see, if you've never been). While driving, I had to make a sharp turn and sudden stop to photograph a tree the likes of which I had never seen—but one I think we'll be seeing more of in years to come. It was a solar tree. Two of them, in fact.
As part of a new construction project, which appeared to be a municipal building geared toward visitors, two large clusters of solar photovoltaic panels sat artistically atop custom made steel stands. These stands held a dozen panels each and looked surprisingly attractive, in my opinion.
While this may, at first glance, be of only passing interest, I think a moment of consideration is in order. How much power can a cluster of PV panels like this generate and how much might it cost to own one?
Solar panels are getting more efficient and less expensive. Residential-quality panels can be found for about $200 per 100-watt panel. So a dozen would cost $2400 and generate 1200 watts of DC power (which then must be converted to AC for normal use and/or stored in batteries for later use). Excess AC power can often be sold back to the power grid. DC lighting fixtures are available that can run efficiently and directly from the solar-charged batteries.
The cost of installing a system like this would also include fabrication of the tree frame, installation, connection wiring, batteries, and converters. How high it would go depends on what you can do yourself and what you'd hire professionals for. But I'm figuring a total cost of around $7500 for a residential-quality tree like this.
The bottom line is that because the cost of PV panels is coming down every year, and because this type of solar array puts out free, clean energy every (not rainy) day, I think we'll be seeing more of these trees in our neighborhoods.
Tim Layton is a home and DIY blogger for Seniorhelpline. Follow him on Twitter: