It's 4 times better than standard solar setups and it looks freakin' cool: Meet the Solar Sunflower.
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League of Conservation Voters

What if we could turn different types of solar power into one mega sun-fueled energy source?

That's exactly what Gianluca Ambrosetti, the head of research at Zurich's Airlight Energy, wanted to know.

For those who didn't know (I sure didn't), there's actually more than one way to harness the sun's energy. In super-oversimplified terms, there's photovoltaics, which kidnaps light and turns it directly into energy (we'll call that "solar-electric" for short) and then there's solar thermal energy, which uses liquid to absorb the sun's heat to use as hot water or to turn into steam (we'll call that "solar-steam" for now).


Left: photovoltaic panels. Photo by David Shankbone/Wikimedia Commons.
Right: solar thermal heaters. Photo by Gilabrand/Wikimedia Commons.

The long version of the story is that Airlight Energy tried to combine solar-electric and solar-steam into one hyperefficient bundle.

In a collaboration with IBM Research, Ambrosetti and his team started experimenting with aluminum mirrors that double as solar-electric panels. They held a lot of energy, but were also prone to overheating because metal + heat + science, et cetera.

To get around that problem, they used the solar-steam tech to cool down the hardware with warm water (collected from that converted steam), thus allowing each cluster of aluminum reflectors to absorb even more sunlight — enough to concentrate the sunlight into the equivalent of 5,000 suns.

This process is called High Concentration Photovoltaic Thermal (HCPVT), which I share because it's fun to say.

Of course, you have to spend energy to make energy. But where the last-best solar panels could convert up to 46% of their absorbed sunlight into energy, the HCPVT system has an efficiency rate of about 80%.

(Meanwhile, your standard residential solar setup works at about 15-20% efficiency, which is still surprisingly cheaper than standard electricity!)

The short answer is: freakin' Solar Sunflowers!

Technically a computer rendering, but still freakin' cool! Photo by IBM Research/ YouTube.

Each of these shiny metal sculptures is capable of pumping out 12,000 watts of solar-electric energy and 21,000 watts of solar-steam energy.

Compare this to regular old residential roof panels — you'll only get about 5,000 watts if you cover your roof in 'em.


The only question left is how do I get me one of these futuristic sun-powered robo-flowers?!

Oh, yeah. About that...

Airlight Energy currently expects to start selling Solar Sunflowers to early adopters in 2016, with a plan to ramp up commercial production by 2017.

"See yourself reflected in the Solar Sunflower." See? It sells itself. (Also, hi, please hire me for marketing. I write great catchphrases.) GIF via IBM Research/YouTube.

But, well, they're kind of expensive. There's no official price yet, but some estimates are placing them upwards of $45,000 a pop. That makes it about twice the cost of an average home solar setup.

Granted, the Solar Sunflower can produce four times more wattage. But that's still a hefty overhead that for many people might not seem worth it upfront.

It's basically the difference between buying a brand new 2017 electric Tesla Model 3 or continuing to drive my dad's old 1997 Nissan Altima. (Although now that I put it that way, hrmmm... )

Of course, a single Solar Sunflower could also be used to power a handful of homes. This would be a selling point if they weren't so conspicuous — we're talking 32 feet tall with a dish area of 430 square feet.

That takes up a lot more space than a slim, flat solar panel that sits on your roof. And even you have somewhere to put them, you'd still need hundreds, possibly thousands, to power an entire city.

Not quite conducive for your the roof of your house ... yet. GIF via IBM Research/YouTube.

But still! Solar Sunflowers! Aren't they super cool*?

*And also incredibly hot, capable of melting metal at 2,800°F without their cooling systems.

They're not the most practical option yet, but the Solar Sunflower is still a tremendous step forward in sustainable energy. And considering the goals of the Clean Power Plan to cut CO2 emissions by 30% over the next 15 years, I'd say we're on the right track.

In the meantime, you can sign this petition to help stop corrupt corporate attacks against the EPA. Not only will it help our environment, but it will help keep the red tape lobbyists out of the way and make it easier for things like the Solar Sunflower to scale down and catch on and make the world a better (and prettier) place.

Find out more about the Solar Sunflower in the video below and get a glimpse of this gorgeous pieces in action:

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Anne Hebert, a marketing writer living in Austin, TX, jokes that her closest friends think that her hobby is "low-key harassment for social good". She authors a website devoted entirely to People Doing Good Things. She's hosted a yearly canned food drive with up to 150 people stopping by to donate, resulting in hundreds of pounds of donations to take to the food bank for the past decade.

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