I was working on a design study recently and soon realized that, although the approach had many merits, one disadvantage was that the basic form did not lend itself to conventional solar panels.
In my case, this was due to the novel geometry of the design. But the problem or issue of course occurs regularly across a variety of design formats, from traditional ornate designs and highly articulated styles to modern polygonal and free-form shapes.
In the future, we may have more flexible solar collector options. Today, however, our choices are more limited. Alternatives include abandoning the original design, or instead the goals of solar electricity generation and building energy autonomy. Another is to pursue custom and often expensive solar panel fabrication.
All of these options can have have substantial disadvantages, and the dilemma led me to envision a preferable alternative. This is the use of what I will call vertical solar power towers – either adjacent to or at some distance from buildings, or even independently of buildings and potentially as a more efficient approach to solar energy collection overall. Importantly, this tower concept is different from and simpler than far more complex solar tower furnaces designed to capture reflected sunlight from mirror arrays.
The Vertical Solar Power Towers infographic above describes the basic idea and summarizes key considerations surrounding the design, construction, and use of these towers. As you can see in the infographic, and as its title implies, the overall concept is quite simple: relatively slender towers of a varying sizes and shapes are constructed, covered or built entirely with solar panels, and in turn used to collect and potentially store electricity. I found a few examples online of the idea being explored, but overall the approach appears substantially unused, despite its many potential benefits.
What are these benefits? In addition to increasing both design flexibility and opportunities for solar energy production, vertical power towers can have a number advantages over traditional horizontal or inclined solar panels. These include: 1) a low cost of construction overall, 2) the potential for prefabrication, and resulting cost and quality benefits, 3) easy panel servicing and maintenance, 4) superior energy capture at low sun angles, high latitudes, and early and late in the day, 5) the likelihood of cooler panels and thus higher energy conversion efficiency, and 6) the potential for greater solar panel density overall. On the last point, this advantage notably is much as with vertical gardening compared with traditional crop planting – with solar panel towers likely to occupy more vertical space than is typical in ordinary solar installations, thus potentially taking up much less room horizontally for comparable production levels.
As my infographic explores, there are a number of solar tower design and placement issues that reman waiting to be examined, many a subset of the study of optimal solar building design overall. Some of these include the optimal shape of vertical solar power towers from both cost and energy collection standpoints, the ideal height of the towers from each standpoint, and optimal densities and placement patterns when solar towers are built in clusters.
With these ideas in mind, I would encourage you to consider my infographic and the many potential uses for vertical solar power towers in building and community design – and whether on a small, middle, or larger scale. In practice, whenever we build vertically and thus nearly every time we build, there is an opportunity to consider either the use of vertical solar power directly or at least the core design principles needed to optimize this approach to solar energy collection in the building’s plan and elevation design.
Mark Lundegren is the founder of ArchaNatura.
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