Solar Creativity

What Designers, Artists & Innovators Are Doing with Sun Power – Part 1

Solar energy is quietly infiltrating more of our daily lives here in Texas and across the country. It’s no longer only for rooftops, ground-mounted panels supplying large buildings, or big utility-owned solar farms out in the desert. One way we see this is in the spread of solar-powered road signs, which are becoming common in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. The most noticeable of these are the “smart warning” signs that post the speed limit, read the speed of your vehicle using solar-powered radar, and display it on a flashing LED board. Other solar-powered safety signs warn of road work ahead or signal a pedestrian crossing in an area where it might be unexpected. Before too long, as the prices of solar cells and batteries continue to plummet, we may expect to see all regular overhead road signs that inform drivers of directions, distances, or upcoming exits lit by stored solar energy—not to mention animated LED billboards, which are already appearing in some urban areas. But that’s only the beginning.

Solar Power from Black Rock City

Solar innovation has other, less utilitarian sources. More than a decade ago, a unique artistic and cultural project, Burning Man, began triggering multiple innovations in the use of solar energy. Burning Man, which began as the building and ceremonial burning of a wooden effigy on a San Francisco beach in 1986, is now an annual nine-day festival held in the Black Rock desert in Nevada around Labor Day. It attracts 70,000 people, who must supply all their own survival needs, from tents, food, water, and an energy source to materials for creating often large-scale art projects. Participants are assigned camping spaces in a concentric street grid and then either collaborate on larger group sculptures or buildings or create their own. The result is Black Rock City, a temporary fantasy town that must, by its own rules, be dismantled at the festival’s end, leaving no trace. An environmental ethic is thus “burned in” to the events.

In 2007, a group of environmentally concerned “Burners” who disliked the noise and smell of the diesel generators being used for power and wanted to reduce the festival’s dependence on fossil fuels, began installing solar arrays and wind turbines in an area of Black Rock City they called the Alternative Energy Zone or AEZ. The only rule: no generators. They also created a solar-powered Green Man to signal their intent. Today, the AEZ occupies much of the City. Solar arrays now power the city’s “base camp” or administration and services center and are used not only to provide energy for amplifiers but to charge batteries for neon or LED-lit art projects. Here’s an example:

And another, one of the themed “temples” built every year:

The AEZ and Green Man also spawned Black Rock Labs, originally known as Black Rock Solar, a nonprofit organization. The group got its start by creating a 30-KW solar installation shaped like the Native American Zia sun symbol, which was then donated to a local school and general hospital. Today BLR helps communities install solar affordably, bringing cheap or free energy to people who need it most. Each year, BLR returns to the desert to electrify Burning Man and facilitate solar powered projects and art installations. Over the years, BLS/BLR has built 112 solar installations for 7.4 MW of power and cut 6,500 tons of CO2 emissions per year, with over $800,000 saved in electricity costs. Here’s an aerial view of a recent Black Rock City at night, lit mostly by stored solar power:

Solar Public Art

From a few outliers like these, growing environmental awareness has led over the last decade or two to nationwide (and worldwide) movement for solar-powered public art. Unsurprisingly, many of these installations are flowerlike or treelike in form, as plants are the original converters of sunlight into energy on our planet. Here’s the Energy Tree, which uses its solar-panel “leaves” to generate power for the adjacent Millennium Square community center in Bristol, UK:

Here is a more complex and sophisticated example by sculptor Dan Corson, outside a science museum in Seattle. Each “flower” issues a musical note as visitor approaches, so that a group of visitors can make music by creating sequences and harmonies of the tones:

And this one, in the Australian desert, uses hundreds of small solar bulbs on stems connected by light-conducting optical-fiber strands to mimic a meadow of wildflowers and the rhizomes that link them below the surface of the soil—an expression of interdependency:

Finally, also at ground level, here is a solar bike path for riding after dark while still being able to view the actual stars in the sky. The swirls are intended to evoke the patterns in Van Gogh’s famous painting “Starry Night”:

Many of these artists and designers are motivated by a desire to make solar “elegant” and aesthetically appealing to most people. It seems to be working. More people are asking: How can we integrate solar power more into the design and fabric of a home or commercial building? Where else in our infrastructure can we easily replace fossil-fuel energy with clean, renewable solar power? In Part 2, we’ll look at some of the new solutions that are emerging.