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The automated and mobile Chicken Caravan designed by Designers on Holiday for The Ecology Center, San Juan Capistrano. The automated coop, let’s hens out in the morning, protects them with an automated fence and, moves to new locations when necessary.

The solar panels that excite us the most.

 

When we think of solar power, most of us imagine a set of panels that provide us with renewable energy. But the innovators among us have embraced the creative potential of this technology to engineer some amazing (as well as outrageous) things. Here’s our selection of some of the most exciting uses of solar energy and solar panels from around the world.

“Why didn’t I think of that?” 

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First, let’s take a look at solar panel projects that could be in almost any major city ‒ and frankly we’re surprised that they haven’t become more commonplace. Take stadiums as an example: giant sports venues are always enormous undertakings both while they are being built and afterwards when they are in use.
The entrance to the Kaohsiung Stadium. The stadium is fully covered in solar panels to help provide for its energy needs.

 

These huge buildings require large amounts of power to be operational. But to Japanese architect Toyo Ito, the problem of designing his stadium to use renewable energy sources became the solution. A giant building has a lot of surface area that usually serves no purpose whatsoever. However, when designing the National Stadium in Taiwan, Ito had 8,844 solar panels – 14,155 square metres worth – installed on the outside of the 50,000-seat arena. This is enough to power the 3,300 lights as well as the two giant screens near the field. Additionally, the energy produced outside of game time is fed into the local grid, providing green energy for the local community. All of this helps prevent the release of 660 tonnes of CO2 annually. And just to up the cool factor, he designed National Stadium in the shape of a dragon.

The MINI Plant Oxford.

The MINI Plant Oxford pursued this same objective of utilising unused spaced by installing more than 11,500 roof panels to help harness renewable solar energy to power the plant. This solar panel roof stretches out across more than 20,000 square metres, or five football pitches. At the time it was installed, it was one of the largest roof-mounted solar farms in the UK. It generates more than 3 megawatts, which is enough electricity to power the equivalent of 850 households.

Let the current flow.

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Let’s stay with ideas that seem surprisingly obvious, but step outside of the city. Stadiums and factories are useful sites for solar panels as the designers have full control over a large amount of real estate. The general problem with solar panels is space. It’s not easy to find areas that are both large enough to accommodate the panels and which can also be used for other purposes, such as housing, recreation or agriculture. This often leads to conflicts and stalled projects. But some ingenious designers have found the perfect place for solar farms: over water.
An overhead shot of a floating power station.
There have been numerous exciting projects launched in recent years in which solar panels have been fitted over water canals. In densely populated countries, such as India and Spain, covering canals with solar panels is an inspired solution born of necessity because it is difficult to find sufficient space near the communities that use the electricity. And installing solar cells on these artificial waterways also offers many different benefits.

 

 

Solar panels serve as a protective layer above the water, shielding it from sunlight and providing a safe space for wildlife. The trial 10-megawatt plant in Gujrat, India, for example, could potentially help with water evaporation, keeping 90 million litres from evaporating annually. Having water directly under the solar panels is beneficial as well because it cools the panels, which significantly raises their efficiency. Another benefit is that since there is less dust on water, maintenance costs are lower. Efficiency also gets a boost from the fact that there are generally fewer trees growing along these canals to provide unwelcome shade.

A photo of a worker cleaning dust off solar panels.

Solar panels are not only well suited to narrow canals, but to large lakes as well. Giant solar farms are currently being developed and tested everywhere from China to the Netherlands. These farms reap benefits similar to those built over canals – from added efficiency to the smart use of space – with the main difference being that they are built to float on water. Since larger bodies of water can accommodate much larger panels than the relatively narrow canals, a great deal more energy can be generated. But that’s not the only reason to be optimistic about the potential of floating solar farms. Building them near existing hydro plants substantially lowers the initial set-up costs since most of the necessary infrastructure is already present. In countries where there are wet and dry seasons, the two different plants can complement each other by providing more power in their respective seasons. What’s more, floating solar farms can help local economies and marine life. They lower algae growth and provide protection for fish, while still allowing enough light to pass through to sustain life.

Of course, these solar panels present their own challenges because they cost more to produce, but the potential benefits eclipse the drawbacks.

What’s more, floating solar farms can help local economies and marine life.
A photo of floating solar panels on open water.

Building solar energy castles in the sand.

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But aside from lakes and canals, there are other places that can provide solar farms with ample real estate. That is why the BMW Group, to which we belong, has begun sourcing electricity generated from solar power. This is important because in our quest for greater sustainability, we are looking to do much more than just make cars that run greener. A holistic approach to environmental awareness means that whatever type of car we make is manufactured in the most sustainable way possible. And this can be challenging. Producing aluminium is hugely energy intensive, but essential for car production.

 

So it’s important for our overall sustainability efforts to make its production as green as possible. But where could you place a sufficiently large solar park that would get enough sunlight and which would not compete with dense local populations of people and wildlife? The answer is, of course, the desert. Since the beginning of 2021 we have sourced our energy from what is set to become the world’s largest solar park ‒ the Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum Solar Park in the desert outside of Dubai. Aluminium produced with green power in the long term enables us to avoid releasing approximately 2.5 million tonnes of CO2 emissions over the next ten years.

The Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum Solar Park  in Dubai.
Germany, in Erftstadt, a 90 meter long test track with solar modules on the ground, that produce electricity.
©mauritius images / Jochen Tack / Alamy / Alamy Stock Photos

Solar cycle.

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In contrast to these gigantic solar farms that are generally located in areas uninhabited by people, the latest solar solutions are aimed at becoming an integrated part of the community. There are numerous continuing efforts to find a happy marriage between solar power and bicycle lanes. The most well known of these was the Dutch SolaRoad. This experimental test was the world’s first solar panel bike path. It was a 72-metre-long energy-harvesting path that was in use for 6 years before it was closed down due to cost and maintenance issues. But the first steps are always difficult. In recent years there have been many plans for bike lanes that use solar panels instead of pavement. However, one problem is that too many cyclists could potentially block out the sun’s rays. That’s why there are now projects in development which place the solar panels above the cyclists, not under them. This would give bikers the benefit of some welcome shade, while protecting the solar panels from excessive wear.

The sun’s energy all cooped up.

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The projects we have discussed so far, while innovative are not wildly unique. But there are some highly creative uses of solar technology out there that are close to becoming reality. For example, design studio Designers on Holiday has created the Chicken Caravan, an automated solar-powered chicken coop for the farmers at the Ecology Center in San Juan Capistrano, California. And the idea is not just for the birds. This lightweight coop is covered in aluminium to reflect heat, with two large extensions (“wings”) on either side to shade the birds inside and provide air circulation.

The coop has wheels so it can be moved easily, which is important as it allows farmers to rotate pastures to avoid overgrazing. This also gives us an entirely new definition of portable solar panels. The most interesting feature is the solar panels that power solar sensors which open the doors as soon as the sun shines on them in the morning. The Chicken Caravan proves that the intelligent use of solar technology can enhance even the most fundamental designs.

3 images of the automated and mobile Chicken Caravan designed by Designers on Holiday for The Ecology Center, San Juan Capistrano. The automated coop, let’s hens out in the morning, protects them with an automated fence and, moves to new locations when necessary.
©Petersen & Gottelier

Wearing sun power on our sleeve.

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And speaking of fundamental things, solar power might become much more prevalent soon with the development of solar fabrics. This is not clothing fabric, but outdoor fabric, or skins, that have flexible solar panels embedded in them. These fabrics are poised to revolutionise the application of solar power as they can be bent and attached to many different types of surfaces. Such solutions are much lighter than the current framed panels and will also last longer. But perhaps most mind-boggling of all are wearable solar fabrics which have solar cells built into them so they can generate electricity.

Researchers are currently working on wearable fabric that can harvest energy from indoor lighting – imagine your t-shirt powering your laptop! As there are many research teams the world over working to make this kind of technology viable, new breakthroughs happen almost every day.

Researchers are currently working on wearable fabric that can harvest energy from indoor lighting – imagine your t-shirt powering your laptop!

These technological innovations might one day allow us to put solar panels anywhere and everywhere, from semi-transparent panels on greenhouses to solar cells on scooters ‒ the possibilities are endless. The energy transition to renewables is not going to slow down. If anything, it will become faster and more imperative. And things that seem extreme today might become commonplace within a decade.

Solar fabrics created by the German company, Heliatek.
©RWE