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August 18, 2010

Solar Energy with Style

Inspired by vine-covered buildings, Solar Ivy offers design-smart sustainable energy.

Growing up in St. Louis, siblings Samuel and Teresita Cochran lived in a neighborhood of old brick houses covered in ivy. Playing outside in summer, they would watch the wind blowing across the leaves, feeling how the vines helped keep things cool. Years later, the ivy-covered buildings at New York’s Pratt Institute reminded Samuel, then enrolled there as an undergrad, of those childhood haunts and inspired his senior thesis. The project, called GROW, was a series of photovoltaic cells printed with conductive ink to look like leaves. Built to be draped on the sides of buildings like ivy, the “leaves” could generate power from both sun and wind. At the same time, Teresita was studying sustainable business practices as a graduate student at NYU, and she decided to help Samuel turn his prototype into a marketable product. So in 2005, after both had graduated, they started Sustainably Minded Interactive Technology, or SMIT. With support from the Pratt Design Incubator for Sustainable Innovation, they hired a third partner, industrial architect Benjamin Howes. Then, in 2008, GROW was included in the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition “Design and the Elastic Mind.” (It’s currently on view there again as part of the ongoing “Action! Design Over Time” show.) But commercialization came slowly, as the wind-energy element of GROW turned out to be too expensive for such a small return on power. So the trio created Solar Ivy, a solar-only option. Relatively cheap and adaptable, it’s a series of recyclable plastic “leaves” holding six-by-six-inch solar cells that produce a consistent half a watt of power in direct sunlight. A system for a house, covered in 500 leaves, would generate 250 watts in daylight—enough power to cool an average home. At a price of $7 to $10 per leaf, the total cost for the setup would pay for itself in five to ten years. Solar Ivy is still in the testing phase, but SMIT plans to make it available to the public in early 2011. s-m-i-t.com.

Fact: Unlike most solar panels, Solar Ivy leaves are easily repositioned to maximize sun exposure.