Are Solar Trees the Answer to EV Charging?

Are Solar Trees the Answer to EV Charging?

We tend to picture EV charging stations mostly as familiar gas station stalls with cords but without the store, and that's perfectly understandable. The vast majority of EV charging hubs look exactly like this, and it's only in the past couple of years that there have been serious efforts to improve the experience.

But what if a charging station looked like a large tree—or a forest of them—providing shade and also generating their own power?

That's the vision behind SolarBotanic Trees, a UK startup moving toward production of a solar-powered concept that uses 3D leaf-shaped cells to collect and store energy, making it available to an EV or a house. The tree can replace the traditional flat-panel cells on the roof of a house, or can be used in lieu of traditional charging stalls that are hooked up to the electric grid.

A single tree can provide enough energy for a three-room house, the company claims, or can be used to recharge an EV overnight after collecting energy in the daytime. There's also the aesthetic value of not covering the landscape with large black rectangles.

SolarBotanic has been developing the concept for the past seven years as an alternative to conventional solar panels. While the photo-voltaic (PV) cells have been tested in a lab setting, a full-size prototype is expected to be finished in the first quarter of 2023 at the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) in Sheffield, UK. The prototype itself is planned to be about 16 feet tall and 16 feet wide at the top, and offer a 5-kW output.

Commercial production of this organic design, meanwhile, is expected to commence by the middle of next year, while a rapid-charging version with a grid connection is expected to roll out in 2024.

"Commercial parking is an ideal application for the SolarBotanic Tree to harvest and store solar energy and charge EVs, with a rapid charge option. A grid connection allows cheaper off-peak power to be stored," the company says.

Off-grid solar EV charging is not a new idea per se, with a handful of companies including Electrify America installing solar-powered stations with their own energy storage systems. But at the moment such solar systems do not offer charging speeds for those in a hurry—DC fast-charging has been off the menu at such stations, at least for now. That's something that SolarBotanic aims to change as well, as customer demand turns to ever faster charging times.

For the most part, such stations offer the advantage of operating independently of the grid, thus avoiding the hefty installation and operating costs, and being able to provide energy to EVs at a lower price than faster charging stations. However, on-site energy storage imposes its own costs, so the investment in hardware tends to be higher than for DC fast-charging stations that do not store their own power and use a dedicated grid connection.

SolarBotanic's vision appears equally well suited to EV charging and home charging coupled with a home energy storage system, without taking manufacturing costs—unknown for now—into account.

Time will tell if such a system will be able to compete favorably with new types of tiles for solar roofs styled after traditional slate roof surfaces. But at the moment, the EV world needs all the off-grid chargers it can get, especially in remote areas.

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