Conventional solar panels use photovoltaic technology to convert the sun's UV rays into electricity, in some ways similar to the photosynthesis of the leaves on a tree. But the energy in any wind buffeting those solar panels is not captured. Conventional windmills have the opposite advantage and disadvantage: They are able to convert wind energy into electricity, but any UV light that strikes and warms up their broad surfaces, dissipates into the surrounding atmosphere, without being transferred to the local electrical grid. If only we could combine the advantages of both solar panels and windmill blades, into a single technology.
Teresita and Samuel Cochran, sister and brother, teamed up to do exactly that, in the form of small solar panels that can be attached to any vertical surface, with each lightweight panel hanging independently and thus able to flutter in the breeze. Each panel is equipped with a series of piezoelectric generators — located on its underside — that convert the panel's movement into electricity. The panels are available in several colors and opacities, and are manufactured from 100 percent recyclable polyethylene. They can be added in any number to the side of a building, starting with a small cluster, which could later be expanded to cover the entire structure — similar to the growth of ivy, which provided inspiration for the design.
The project is thus appropriately known as GROW, and is the result of work done at SMIT (Sustainably Minded Interactive Technology), a relatively new company dedicated to creating sustainable design ideas and applying them to usable technologies. In an interview with Ecolect, Teresita, CEO and cofounder of SMIT, noted that she became involved in the project while researching alternative power, as part of her Masters program in interactive technology, at NYU. She collaborated with Samuel, a student at Pratt Industrial Design whose industrial design thesis project combined solar and wind energy, in the form of these innovative panels.
As a startup firm with limited funding, SMIT has yet to attract large-scale commercial interest, production, and distribution. But the innovative project is certainly capable of gaining widespread acceptance and usage. At this time, a concept prototype, GROW.1, is on display at MoMa (The Museum of Modern Art), in the exhibit "Design and the Elastic Mind", until 12 May 2008. A residential application, GROW.2, is built on stainless steel mesh, thereby making it possible for ivy and other crawlers to grow between the panels and the outside wall of the building.
Brooklyn-based SMIT hopes to make the GROW product available to consumers through a number of retail channels, including select stores, sometime during the next two years. The product should prove quite successful, especially after the firm integrates into it an energy monitoring system, known as WATTg, which will make it possible for customers to track the amount of energy generated by their GROW systems.