The Nature of Photovoltaic (PV)

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Roof-mounted solar is suddenly turning up everywhere in my neck of the woods in the UK and I can see panels being installed whilst the new owners eagerly stand in the drive awaiting the postman’s delivery of a bigger wallet.

Aidan Dwyer's tree-shaped solar array

Aidan Dwyer’s tree-shaped solar array

Even my golf club has just to taken a decision to invest £35,000 in a Solar photovoltaic (PV) array which I think makes us one of the first in the country to have greens as well as go green!

Not wanting to miss out I investigated the possibility of adorning one’s own roof with a solar power plant, grand title I know but I like the sound of that. And there is my problem: the said roof that keeps the rain off my head is facing the wrong direction! Not only that, it’s structurally not suitable with the angle being rather steep whilst the trees in the garden are shading the potential power output. So there goes my solar power plant quicker than you can say “feed in tariff”.

Searching online for a solution, I came across a really interesting innovation in TechCrunch. A 13-year-old boy in the US has spotted the best solar collector ever and they’ve been around since the year dot…trees!

Aidan Dwyer from New York won 2011 Young Naturalist Award from the American Museum of Natural History by building a miniature tree-shaped solar array.

You probably, like me, haven’t thought about it before but plants and trees collect sunlight to enable photosynthesis, and trees grow right next to other trees so how do they do it with such efficiency?

Aidan speculated that the solution is based around the Fibonacci sequence, nature’s magic sequence, which simply put, means that trees spiral upwards with more leaves (aka solar collectors) at the top.

Trees are efficient because of the Fibonacci sequence

Trees spiral upwards with more leaves (aka solar collectors) at the top, because of the Fibonacci sequence.

As you can see in Aidan’s experiment, in comparison to a solar array, power collection via a solar tree is more efficient, even though some collecting cells are partially obscured. In addition, as the sun moves round in a day the power output is 50% better even in shaded conditions.

Impressive I thought, what do you think? I can’t have a solar roof but maybe I could get myself a solar tree for the garden!


Images reproduced with permission from the American Museum of Natural History. The photo of the top is of 13-year-old Aidan Dwyer, winner of the American Museum of Natural History’s 2011 Young Naturalist Award.

About Michael Buckle

Michael is an Executive Director of Global Markets and leads Willis' Renewable Energy practice. Based in London wit…
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2 Responses to The Nature of Photovoltaic (PV)

  1. Ronald Waters says:

    You may already be aware, but Aidan’s experiment measured the voltage output of the solar array, not the power output. Although the idea of “a 7th-grader figuring out something that Ph.D.’s didn’t” has gotten a lot of play in the popular press, his results have been challenged–and rejected–by the engineering community.

    • Michael Buckle says:

      I think what’s interesting about Aidan’s experiment is that it shows that all generations are interested in renewable technology solutions and have challenged some of the conventions. I agree that ultimately there are greater institutions who have clarified the results and no one is building solar forests just yet, but we never know, there may be a young Steve Jobs of Renewables out there.

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