'Solar tree' proposed for training academy in Glenview

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Solar Tree, by Artemide

Is it urban art or just a new gadget for collecting solar power? Some say it's both.

Glenview officials recently got a look at a miniature version the "solar tree" that the Northeastern Illinois Public Safety Training Services Academy wants to erect in front of its building at 2300 Patriot Boulevard.

Tactical Design, an architectural firm based in Arlington Heights, has been tapped to build a 35-foot-tall version of the device, which looks like something out of a science fiction movie about rampaging robots.

Michael Enz, co-owner of Tactical Design, said the solar tree will cost about $73,000. It'll have seven solar panels and produce almost 3,000 kWh in electricity each year. Enz explained that photovoltaic cells inside the material in solar panels capture energy as the sun's radiation passes through them.


"Our intent was to create an urban sculpture that has a functional basis," Enz said, adding that he's excited about the project. "This is a big deal for us."

The solar tree is one part of a larger $1.3 million project at the training academy, said Robert Lahey, its executive director. Four technical rescue training props will include a trench and a collapsed building. The props will be used to train firefighters, policemen and other first-responders in emergency preparedness during exercises as part of the academy's curriculum.

The solar tree would power a pump that draws rainwater from the trench prop.

Lahey said the academy, which was established in 1993 on the site of the former Glenview Naval Air Station closed, trains about 5,000 students each year.

"It's going to be a great addition to the facility," Lahey said. "Anything we can do to make the site more green and eco-friendly is only a positive."

The Glenview appearance commission recently discussed whether the solar tree would appropriate for the area along Patriot Boulevard. It recommended that the project move forward. During the meeting, commissioners examined a miniature version of the proposed structure.

"I thought it was intriguing," said Timothy McJilton, chairman of the appearance commission. "I've never heard of a 'solar tree' before."

Enz said his company, which formed about five years ago, is planning to build another tree as part of a renovation project in Chicago. That structure will help power one of the buildings in the Illinois Medical District at 2235 W. 13th St. in Chicago. The construction for the project is scheduled to start this summer and last for four to six months, according to district's spokeswoman Heather Tarczan.

About three to four similar trees could potentially power an average U.S. house, which uses about 11,000 kWh per year, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration's website.

The concept of integrating solar energy and nature isn't new, according to experts.

Street light poles that run on solar power have been in the testing stages in the Chicago area for at least a few years, said Said al-Hallaj, adjunct professor of chemical engineering at University of Illinois in Chicago.

But al-Hallaj added that he hasn't yet heard of specific solar structures that are shaped like trees in the area.

Al-Hallaj, who has more than 20 years experience in renewable energy, said aesthetically pleasing "solar trees" like the ones Enz is working on can help commercialize solar energy.

"At one point solar energy will be mainstream and will be able to compete with coal," he said. "I'm all for it."

In addition, a drop in solar panel manufacturing costs over the last year is going to contribute to more organizations creating renewable energy opportunities in the future, said Seth Darling, a solar energy expert with Argonne National Laboratory.

Darling said it's a natural step for designers, especially in cities, to come up with ideas for using solar panels in a way that doesn't require much land space.

"It's a logical thing to do," Darling said.

Enz, who enjoys science fiction, said he envisions a time when a forest of metal trees would be able to power urban areas.

"I think it'd be really cool," Enz said.

Source: Chicago Tribune Company, LLC