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Weekly “What is it?”: Solar Trees

A “solar tree” installation in downtown Pensacola. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension

Driving down Main Street near City Hall in Pensacola, you may notice curious new structures along the sidewalk. They look a bit like an abstract artist’s rendition of a tree–a single curved trunk lifting from the ground to the air, with a flat shade-producing canopy perched at an angle. But there are no leaves or branches on this “tree”—instead you’ll see solar panels on top. These “solar trees” being installed downtown in Pensacola are part of a larger initiative by Gulf Power to diversity its energy sources and become less reliant on nonrenewable fuels. These smaller panels are also an opportunity for residents and students to learn how and why solar energy functions. The Pensacola solar trees will have QR codes that link to information about the energy company’s efforts to utilize more solar power. Locally, smaller solar arrays on individual rooftops, parking shelters, and even billboards are helping offset fossil fuel use in communities and reduce overall costs. Worldwide, creative solar tree installations have been popping up that look like palm trees (that also provide wi-fi and real-time weather info) and flowers, which move with the sun like a real flower.

The solar array at Saufley Field in Pensacola is one of several large partnerships between the military and Gulf Power to provide solar energy. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension

In the Florida Panhandle, one of the biggest investments in solar has been in partnerships with power companies and the military. On a sunny day, the large (290-acre) solar array at Saufley Field in Pensacola generates enough power for 7,500 homes. Additional large arrays are located at Whiting Field in Santa Rosa County and Eglin Air Force Base in Okaloosa County. According to Gulf Power, the three military installations combined “have approximately 1.5 million solar panels capable of generating up to 120 megawatts of electricity, enough energy to power nearly 18,000 homes annually.” At the time of its installation in 2016, the Eglin project was the largest solar installation for the Air Force, worldwide.