Ivy-covered walls have long been a hallmark of academe. The University of Utah plans to bring that emblem a new significance later this summer, with the installation of an array of solar panels crafted to resemble ivy leaves.
The “solar ivy” will cover about 800 square feet of the south wall of Orson Spencer Hall and is scheduled for installation in late August. The installation is expected to generate an average of about three kilowatts of electricity—a relatively small amount equivalent to the power needed for the kitchen and living room of a four-person household—and will feed into the University’s main power grid, says Tom Melburn, a U student who came up with the idea for the project and found the funding for it. Melburn, who graduated in May with a bachelor’s degree in environmental studies, says he learned in 2011 that a company in New York called Sustainably Minded Interactive Technology had developed the solar ivy. Melburn approached the U’s Office of Sustainability with his idea and then sought financing for the $42,000 cost of his project through the University’s Sustainable Campus Initiative Fund, which is supported by student fees. He was awarded a $30,000 grant and then raised the remaining $12,000 in donations over a two-month period.
The installation on Orson Spencer Hall will feature small photovoltaic panels that are green, to resemble leaves, as well as red ones placed in the shape of a block U. “I like its aesthetic value the most,” Melburn says. “This isn’t just something that goes on top of a building and is out of sight and mind. It’s going to attract interest to how we produce and consume energy.”
Samuel Cochran, chief executive officer of the company that makes the ivy, says the installation at the University of Utah will be the first in the United States, and the second in the world. An exhibit of solar ivy was scheduled to be installed this past spring at the Environment Museum of the Montreal Biosphere, in Canada.
The company uses environmentally sustainable practices in manufacturing the panels, Melburn says. The leaves are made of recycled plastic, and the company doesn’t use silicone-based photovoltaics that contain rare-earth minerals that are harmful to the environment. “The downside is that these aren’t as efficient when it comes to energy generation” as silicone-based panels are, “but we wanted to take into consideration the sustainability of the production,” he says.
Orson Spencer Hall may be renovated or replaced during the next 10 years, and if and when that happens, the solar-ivy installation can easily be removed and reinstalled. Beyond the logistics, Melburn says he loves what the installation signifies. “This is a really unique project, because it is representative of how fast technology is changing and how fast we can adapt this into our lives and change the ways we think about energy.”
Editor’s Note: Due to difficulties with the company that produces the solar ivy, the University decided in late 2012, a few months after this article was published, that it would not be able to install the panels on Orson Spencer Hall.