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 fascinating (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?”
First, let’s take a look at solar panel projects that could be in almost any major city – 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.
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 8,444 solar panels – 14,155 square metres worth – installed on the outside of the 40,000-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 the stadium in the shape of a dragon.
At the MINI plant in Oxford, we pursued a similar goal. More than 11,500 solar modules cover an area the size of about five football pitches, and supply production halls and administration with around 2.7 gigawatts of energy from renewable sources per year. This is the equivalent electricity consumption of over 930 households (based on an average household in the UK) and it reduces the annual carbon footprint by around 1,500 tonnes. By the way: at the time of installation in 2014, we had one of the largest solar roofs in the whole of the United Kingdom.
Let the current flow.
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.
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 a smart 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 the 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.
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.
Building solar energy castles in the sand.
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. We are already pursuing sustainability strategies that shape our dealings with supply chains and materials, electrification, production facilities and the URBAN-X startup programme. And this can be challenging. For example, producing aluminium is hugely energy intensive, but essential for car production.
So it’s important for our overall sustainability efforts to make 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 2021, we have been sourcing aluminium, for the production of which electricity from solar energy is used, and process it into body and drive components at BMW Group Plant Landshut. For the energy-intensive production of aluminium, our supplier obtains electricity from one of the world's largest solar parks south of Dubai: the Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum solar park. By using green energy in our aluminium production, we can reduce CO2 emissions by around 2.5 million tonnes by 2030.
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 best-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.
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. 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 are the solar sensors which open the doors automatically 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.
Wearing sun power on our sleeveS.
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 within a decade, things that seem extreme today may just become commonplace.