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Israel's Solar-Powered 'Trees': For Smartphones And Community

A man surfs the Internet on a tablet attached to a solar tree in Israel. This tree's broad "leaves" are solar panels, powering electric and USB outlets, a drinking fountain and Wi-Fi, all available to people passing by. i

A man surfs the Internet on a tablet attached to a solar tree in Israel. This tree's broad "leaves" are solar panels, powering electric and USB outlets, a drinking fountain and Wi-Fi, all available to people passing by. Emily Harris/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Emily Harris/NPR
A man surfs the Internet on a tablet attached to a solar tree in Israel. This tree's broad "leaves" are solar panels, powering electric and USB outlets, a drinking fountain and Wi-Fi, all available to people passing by.

A man surfs the Internet on a tablet attached to a solar tree in Israel. This tree's broad "leaves" are solar panels, powering electric and USB outlets, a drinking fountain and Wi-Fi, all available to people passing by.

Emily Harris/NPR

There are plenty of real trees in Ramat HaNadiv. Oaks, pine and willow line the trails that circle through this nature park near Mount Carmel in northern Israel.

And planted in the gravel at the edge of one clearing is a new species, the solar powered tree.

Biologically speaking, of course, all trees are powered by the sun. But this is different.

Its brown metal trunk and branches reach high toward the sky, like the acacia tree this model is named after. Its seven broad "leaves" are standard solar panels. They shade benches below, as well as power electric and USB outlets, chill drinking fountain water and supply energy for wi-fi.

Inventor Michael Lasry says it's a new way of bringing solar power to people.

"We're used to seeing big companies working on large scale systems," he says. "Now we see solar energy becoming accessible to each one of us on the street."

The tree was formally unveiled Thursday, although it and a smaller, two-panel model were installed in the park several weeks ago. Guests invited to the ribbon cutting ceremony loved it.

"People come with computers to coffee shops," said Gideon Inbar, a retired Israeli-American. "They can come here."

"It's wonderful," said Xia Wang, from China, who attended the unveiling. "Many functions. And it's also very green energy."

Wang's company, Mode PV-Tech, made the panels. The Israeli company that dreamed up the tree, Sologic, is targeting cities in China and France for first sales, says Claude Brightman, a Sologic publicist. Her pitch aims at the future.

"The new cities of tomorrow, the smart cities ... this will be the icon of the city who has made such a choice," she says.

One Acacia model solar tree costs about $100,000. Brightman calls it a combination of art, convenience, green energy and community — all frequent aims of urban design, she says.

A small solar-powered tree, invented by Israeli energy entrepreneur Michael Lasry, stands at the edge of natural greenery. i

A small solar-powered tree, invented by Israeli energy entrepreneur Michael Lasry, stands at the edge of natural greenery. Emily Harris/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Emily Harris/NPR
A small solar-powered tree, invented by Israeli energy entrepreneur Michael Lasry, stands at the edge of natural greenery.

A small solar-powered tree, invented by Israeli energy entrepreneur Michael Lasry, stands at the edge of natural greenery.

Emily Harris/NPR

A seven-panel tree can generate a maximum of 1.4 kilowatts, enough to run 35 laptops. A battery stores excess power, lighting the area at night using LEDs and providing backup power on cloudy days.

One Israeli politician speaking at the unveiling ceremony suggested fields of solar trees might be nicer than the fields of industrial solar panels that have sprung up on rooftops and in deserts. Eli Barnea, an investor in Israel's largest private power company, agrees they are prettier. But he says the solar tree has its limits.

"It's an excellent idea for young people away from home, they go to the park, they play and want to charge their phone or do other things. That's fine."

But to use solar trees for serious power generation, he says would be difficult.

"It will be expensive. When you don't look at it as a means of energy production, but like another item in a park, I think it will catch on worldwide."

Sologic CEO Lasky doesn't want to plug the trees in to the grid anyway. He says keeping them self-sustaining is part of the point.

"Showing that OK, we're in the middle of the desert and we're able to create everything we need just from the solar system," he says.

Future solar tree models are planned to include technology to condense water from the air, as well as touch screens to display information or give internet access.

And cameras, says Lasry, to connect people under a solar tree in one part of the world with people under another solar tree in another place.

"That's the idea, to bring the community closer. All the trees around the world will be able to communicate," he says.

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