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Small Vertical Solar Units (SVSUs)

To bring citizens--US & worldwide--into the "conversion to renewable energy" process, we need Small Vertical Solar Units. (Think of them as sort of like R2-D2s, but different.) These units could be mass produced, & purchased & installed in backyards & on building tops everywhere. Their solar cells would go up vertically, not horizontally, and work all day long--if designed to follow the sun--to produce a small-but-significant percentage of the electricity needs of, especially, households. Since they could be purchased & installed at relatively small cost, additional units could be purchased--or rented--& installed almost without limit, until, theoretically, all household--& EV automobile--electricity needs are met. Heights would vary.

Photo of Grady R Daugherty
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The idea of SVSUs would include several facts: (1) Solar cell units for backyards and other sites are usually thought of a requiring large horizontal spaces, in order to be effective; (2) IF these solar cell units could go "up" vertically, rather than "out" horizontally, the same amount of "sun capture" could be had--and perhaps even more, given the possibility of maximizing the horizontal site footprint; (3) citizens need small units that can be sited here and there, and yet not take up too much horizontal space; (4) people in developing countries--especially--need such units,  by the tens-of-millions--right now.
          In conclusion, we've got to stop thinking of large, on-the-grid types of solar electricity generators, and expensive, on-the-roof types, and start thinking in terms of small, vertically configured units that can be installed almost anywhere and are able to proliferate across the land.

What community does this idea benefit and who are the main players?

This idea benefits citizens everywhere, in an immediate, financial sense; but also it would benefit citizens everywhere in that it would greatly reduce the burning of coal and other fossil fuels for electrical power.

How does your idea specifically help your community rapidly transition to renewables?

It would make small, vertical solar units affordable to everyday citizens. Anyone with a small space open to the sun would be able immediately to cut down on the electric bill, and help battle climate change.

What early, lightweight experiment can you try out in your own community to find out if the idea will meet your expectations?

Probably none. We live in an apartment in the city, and I do not have a shop for experimentation.

What skills, input or guidance are you keen to connect with from the OpenIDEO community to help you build out or refine your idea further?

I would like to be included in the "think tank" for developing the idea, as I have certain designs in mind and just love the idea, but I am not concerned with idea proprietorship or other personal gain. SVSUs need to be invented and produced, if we are going to stop catastrophic climate change.

Please indicate which type of energy is most relevant to this post:

  • Solar

This idea emerged from:

  • An Individual


Join the conversation:

Photo of Shuting Zeng

Hello Grady, thanks for contributing such an original, cool idea! I am truly very excited about it! I am also amazed by your all-around thoughts about its design after reading your conversations with Natalie. Let me see if I can help with your project here:

1) Getting more help from OpenIDEO: Making it more visual is a great way to start! How about doodling the design ideas you have on a post-it or a very simple drawing app on the computer and sharing them with us? So that we will know how roughly SVSU looks like :) Since it is a design project it will really be great if you can visualize all the possible changes you want to make to it.

And may I ask what background you are from? This sounds like a mechanical design project. If you particularly need help for that, maybe you can specify that in your initiative by highlighting what kind of talent you are especially looking for!

2) Experimenting/prototyping may be very important to this design. Even living in a little apartment, you can still do lots of things. Using CAD, you may start some simple prototyping. Then, you may be able to hold the first rough samples, send your ideas out to university labs/solar panel companies to see their feedback. Cali has a great startup lab culture, I feel like if you try, you will be able to find a place big enough for you to start!

3) I did a bit of research and found an article particularly relevant to your project:
3D solar towers offer up to 20 times more power output than traditional flat solar panels

Another one here:
Solar Panels: Not Just Big Rectangles on the Roof Anymore

And I would like to recommend Oriol from the Clean Angels team who has the background in industrial design. Oriol is now busy with our Clean Angels project but I am sure if you say hi to him on his profile or comment under his idea, he would love to give you his feedback on your idea. This is Oriol's profile:

I would love to see this idea turn into reality and see lots of potential in it. Let me know what I can help more. Cheers!

Photo of Grady R Daugherty

Dear Shuting Zeng (and through you, Natalie and Ryan McLinko),

Thank you for responding. Both you and Natalie have prodded me to present at least a rudimentary sketch of an SVSU. I've resisted because the idea is more in the gestational than the design stage, and a hard-copy sketch might do more harm than good. So, I will put off presenting a sketch, and try to keep the right sides of our brains working on the overall concept. Even so, permit me to respond generally to your very welcome and helpful comments.

First of all, the MIT, accordian-style towers struck me as an excellent possibility. Not only do they corroborate the fact that vertical, rather than horizontal configuration is the way to go; they also open up many interesting possibilities.

For example, let's say that you have an electric vehicle, and its battery(s) needs to be charged inexpensively by the sun. If in the trunk (bonnet) and other parts of the body there are accordian-like masts which could rise and capture solar electrical energy throughout the day--in, say, a parking lot or home driveway--you might be able to drive primarily by solar energy, and have to plug into the grid only rarely, or never.

Second of all, let's try to stay with the basic idea of SVSUs, whether they might employ a vertical MIT tower design, or rotating hard solar panels per my original idea. The basic idea is that tens-of-millions of citizens everywhere would be able to purchase (or lease) SVSUs, at relatively do-able investment cost, and give us an alternative to giant industrial plants which sell us energy by the kilowatt-hour.

What is at work here is the crying need for small, easily-installed solar generators, which do not have large, horizontal footprints. If a household should require a half-dozen SVSUs in the backyard, to power most of a family's needs, then installing them sequentially, as family finances permit, would be possible.

When the idea of going vertical with solar panel first entered my amateur mind, I envisioned using the tens-of-thousands of used, retired utility poles as cheap skeletons for vertical solar panels. The idea seemed great, because horizontal installations are so cumbersome and space-consuming.

But not everyone can sink a used utility pole into their backyard and somehow hang rectangular solar panels on them, somehow making these panels follow the sun. I mean, the problems of investment, installation, etc., appeared to scuttle the idea before it got out of the box.

Subsequently, it occurred to me that citizens don't need utility pole sized units; they need small units that can be purchase cheaply and sited here and there, wherever there is room to site, e.g., backyards, rooftops, etc.

And so, while I'm not ready to offer a rudimentary sketch, I am ready to encourage you, Shuting (and Natalie and Ryan,) to stay with the basic idea, and help work out the details.

The idea of putting a metal pipe into the ground, in the backyard, and mounting a SVSU on it, high enough off the ground to be beyond the reach of kids, pets, etc., seems like a reasonable starting point.

The panels would have to be cleaned periodically, and so spaying them with a water hose, then using a squiggy seems like a possibllity. But what is most important is the determination that installation and maintenance by common citizens have to be considered in the design.

SVSUs, weather they look like R2-D2s or MIT accordian-type towers, are needed, if we are to avert the worst effects of climate change, oceanic destruction and perhaps a nuclear war over fossil fuel supplies.

Photo of Shuting Zeng

Hello Grady,

Thank you for your detailed response. I love the great intention and thoughts from you. I can pass this message to Ryan since I recommended him to come up here to have a look at your idea (he has mechanical design background from MIT). Yet with Natalie, you may need to reply to her under the conversation thread with her so that she can see your reply. So far OpenIDEO does not have the "@" function like that on FB or Twitter!

If you are resist to presenting your design or prototype here, would you like to use the picture from the tower-shape solar panels as the picture for this idea? So that it will help the readers to understand better your idea.

I am not sure why presenting the sketch will do more harm than good. Is it bec you think it may limit people's imagination? In my experience, breaking down the project into little steps and starting prototyping and correcting is a great start to come up with a good design. OpenIDEO does not require perfect product. This is a platform where people come together to brainstorm and design. Visualizing your different ideas will make it much easier for your idea to communicate with other OpenIDEOers. It will make the concepts concrete and understandable, and in that way it will be easier for you to find out the good and bad sides of your design and keep improving it.

Designing a UX map will be even better: explain the change you can bring in the standpoint of the user. Tell people how this new solar panel will change their energy consumption, etc. Here is a good example from Joanna about how to use UX map to tell your idea:

If your focus has not been with the design, but with the circulation of more efficient solar panels, then maybe it will be nice to think about rephrasing the idea about marketing. Or, if you are interested in diversifying or developing facilities to incorporate new solar panel, then you can start from there too! I hope you enjoy working with OpnIDEOers with various backgrounds and talents here to develop your idea and impact communities with it!

Photo of Ryan McLinko

This is an interesting concept; creating modular, mass-produced units would be a great way to reduce the cost of solar panels and increase market penetration, however, how do you plan for that these poles would be any cheaper to produce/install than roof-mounted ones? Fairly sizeable arrays are required to fully power a home, and standing those vertically and having them track the sun would require nontrivial structure and motors. I'm not an expert in the field, but my understanding is that the biggest issue to widespread proliferation of solar power is the initial cost of the panels themselves, regardless of how they are arranged, so if these SVSUs (or some other means of drastically reducing the cost) could be found, it would be very valuable.

Photo of Natalie Lake

Hi Grady,

This is a really neat idea. I think a sketch of your idea for the SVSUs would be a great addition to your information above. For a pilot, what if you built your own SVSU! Marine, another OpenIDEOer ,has posted some pretty cool DIY solar panel construction ideas. You could build a few SVSUs and test them in your neighborhood?

Also, you might be interested in teaming up with Carl, another OpenIDEOer whose project is all about solar glass panes.

Looking forward to seeing your prototypes! Thank you for sharing.

Photo of Grady R Daugherty

Hi Natalie, Thank you so much for you encouraging comments.

As far as building a prototype of an SVSU right now, it's not possible. As I said originally, I live in an apartment (in Santa Monica, CA) and do not have any sort of shop in which to experiment.

As far as making a sketch, I'd rather not encumber other, more knowledgeable thinkers with an "on paper" concept, but I do believe that a written presentation might even be more effective. Even so, there are certain aspects of a design which I would like to voice.

First of all, an SVSU might sit flat on a flat rooftop; or it might sit on a raised pedestal in a backyard (to keep it away from kids, pets, etc.).

Second, the vertical solar "panes" might sit on and revolve on a circular base, somewhat like a carousel, and move slowly around the center. This rotation would help keep the panes cool (as I understand, there is a problem with solar panels becoming overheated from the sun's rays); and also this would present the panes to all angels of the rays, at all times of the day. The power to rotate the panes would come, of course, from the harvested sunlight.

Third, the panes--which might be 36 to 48 inches high--could lean slightly inward toward the center, in order to present at a more effective angle to the sun; and this might also require the panes to be more narrow at the top than at the bottom.

Fourth, such a circular, slowly rotating battery of panes would mean that the panes would not have to "follow the sun," but that whatever rays might be available, at any time, would generate maximum current.

Fifth, the panes would be low enough to citizens for easy regular cleaning.

Sixth, a metal pole cemented in the ground, and serving to support the backyard unit(s) might also extend on up, and accommodate a small windmill generator (screened, of course, to protect birds) for extra power generation, esp. at night.

Seventh, the "metal pole" might be like the old clothesline poles that everyone used to have in their backyards, i.e., perhaps made of steel and 4 inches in diameter.

Eighth, the problems of things like lightening strikes, bird droppings, and so on, would have to be considered in the design.

Ninth, emphasis would be on cheapness of manufacture and ease of installation, esp. DYI, in order to make the contraptions affordable to common working citizens.

Thank you again, Natalie, for your kind words and your inspiration. Those two other links might not be relevant right now, but thanks anyway. Please keep me in mind if you come on anyone else who might like to brainstorm with us.

Do you have any ideas that might move the invention forward?

Sincerely, Grady

Photo of Natalie Lake

Hi Grady,

These are some interesting design ideas. You seem to have thought about this design a lot. I still think a few sketches of your idea would help inspire others and I don't think it would cramp their style at all. Also, you may still want to look into Marine's ideas, she has some links to cheap DIYs using recyclables where you would not need a workshop to construct a PV panel. I've actually built a panel as well in my bedroom while I was living in Peru! It obviously will not be the perfect SVSU by any means, but I think it will at least allow you to test out the idea in the field which might attract funders.

While overheating cells is definitely a concern, I wonder how much energy would be used in continuously rotating the panels. Perhaps in later iterations of the design you can incorporate cells like the ones Stanford has been prototyping.

And for following the sun's trajectory, perhaps you could utilize gravity, using a design similar to SunSaluter's idea for this challenge?

I really like the idea of creating a hybrid turbine/solar panel to ensure energy production at all hours of the day. However, if your emphasis is on cheapness, you should know that the hardware (inverters, charge controllers) is considerably more for hybrid systems.

Finally, for your environmental concerns.. How tall of a metal pole are you thinking of using for this design? Unless, you are thinking of creating a pole that is more than 25m high, I do not think lightning will pose much of a risk. However, grounding both turbine and solar panel systems is always recommended to add lightning protection. Also, interesting fact, birds are killed by power lines 13,000x more often than turbines and these deaths mainly occur in large turbine parks. This is not to say that this is not a concern, but for small household turbines it seems like your chances are pretty low. However, just in case, it might be good to run a study through the American Bird Conservancy's Bird-Smart first to make sure there are no endangered birds in the area etc.


I hope these help you continue to refine your design. Again, super interesting idea so thank you for sharing!