Why you should care

Because it’s cute, colorful and helping solar turn a new leaf.

Rudy Simons and his family decided last year to reduce their carbon footprint. But what surprised their neighbors in the northern Belgian village of Loenhout were the lengths — especially the heights — to which the family would go. In June, the Simons household planted a Smartflower POP — a solar flower that claims to be the world’s first all-in-one photovoltaic system — in their back garden. Standing roughly 5 meters high, it draws lots of attention and admiration, Simons says. “When we first bought it, we had our doubts,” he admits, especially given the device’s size. But now, he says, the kids love it and visitors want to have a look and “think it looks nice.”

Five years ago, Alexander Swatek and a few colleagues, frustrated by the need for “a more simple and aesthetic way to create solar solutions for residential homes,” set up Smartflower Energy Technology. Over the next three years, they worked with a team of 20 engineers to create, prototype and test the Smartflower POP before putting it into production. Sales were limited last year, but they’ve begun to bloom — to the tune of around 1,000 so far — in 2015.

The system claims to boost energy production by 40 percent.

The device opens in the morning, unfolding 18 square meters of solar petals into a giant circle that tilts to track the sun throughout the day before closing for self-cleaning at night. Compared with rooftop solar panels reliant upon sun from one direction, the system claims to boost energy production by 40 percent. Easily installed in less than an hour, it feeds electricity directly into homes via a plug-and-play system, delivering between 3,400 and 6,200 kilowatt-hours a year, depending on the weather. That’s compared with the 4,000 kwh the average Central European home of four uses annually. And the flower is guaranteed to perform for 25 years. Simons says his device, despite being in a cloudy region, has already produced 2,000 kwh in just three months — his in-home electricity meter often registers negative numbers.

The Smartflower POP is available throughout most of Europe — retailing for approximately $14,000 to $16,000 — and in South Africa. A new option, the Smartflower POP+, offers a battery and energy storage solution for those looking to go completely off-grid.

There are obvious drawbacks for apartment dwellers or those with tiny yards. But Swatek says the system requires only 5 meters by 5 meters and has been installed on rooftops and terraces. It may sound a bit pricey, but while rooftop solar panels have been falling in price in recent years, their installation costs can be exorbitant. And, points out Mark Rome, CEO of US SolarBuilt, the U.S. residential renewable energy tax credit — which helps offset solar purchase costs — expires next year, and similar global incentive programs will also soon see restrictions. That, combined with the fact that U.S. utility firms are increasingly trying to grab a slice of the solar pie — and charging users accordingly — may boost demand for stand-alone, off-grid solutions.

Intrigued U.S. readers will be happy to hear that Swatek plans to invade America early next year. Simons, meanwhile, loves what has taken root in his garden and is proud that his wife’s electric car is now “fueled by the sun.”

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