One of the most futuristic cool solar systems I’ve ever seen is made by SmartFlower. The analogies are built into the structure – like a flower, the machine rises with the sun, opens wide to catch the rays, tracks the sun across the sky and then closes itself away for the evening.

The SmartFlower is really an interesting-looking piece of engineering. Its purpose shines when you talk about protecting your house if the grid goes down. The price is strong for a standard solar house install – but if the commitment of connecting to your roof is an issue for you, the SmartFlower is cool with you seeing other solar panels.

The SmartFlower is 2.5kW of solar panels per the specs in the downloadable brochure. It weighs approximately 1,477 pounds. When fully unfurled – the 12 petals offer up 194 sq inches of surface area to feed on photons. It looks like it stands about 17-18 feet high (this changes based upon your location and, of course, the sun’s placement during the day) and needs a bit less width to freely spin around.

SmartFlower Director of Sales for the Southeast US and Caribbean, Eddie Delgado, spent some time on the phone with me regarding the unit. One detail we learned is that there are two battery upgrades coming in Q1-2018 – adding 4.6kWh of lithium-ion and increasing that to 13.8kWh. The smaller upgrade contains the batteries inside of the original structure. Today’s SmartFlower can be connected with any general backup hardware – something like the Sonnen battery pack or Tesla Powerwall 2 that will create its own microgrid.

Eddie also shared the specification page on the solar panels. The spec pages don’t say it, but the solar panels are about 21% efficient (per Eddie) monocrystalline that are encapsulated in 2mm thick glass. There’s actually 2,745W of solar cells (larger than the 2.5kW STC rating).

SmartFlower mentions that the panels are bendable – but try not to do that because solar cells do sometimes crack. When wind speeds break 32 mph the unit goes horizontal – a strong position that lets it still collect electricity. At 40 mph the overnight folded down position is activated for protection.

EnergySage says they’re costing about $25,000-30,000 to be fully installed in the USA. Per the manufacturer, once all connections are in place and the concrete is poured, the hardware can be installed in a few hours. Variance in price occurs with electric panel upgrades, complexity in pouring concrete slab and cost of trenching the copper to the main structure. The SmartFlower launched in the USA a little more than a year ago.

The SmartFlower has a few nice features as a result of its structure. First, as the panels fold up they clean themselves. SmartFlower says this saves around 5% efficiency losses – and they’re probably about right with that estimation. And secondly, because of the opened back design of the petals, the unit cools better than panels atop a hot roof. As solar panels increase in temperature to about 77°F, they will lose some efficiency – making less electricity. The group thinks they’ll get an extra 5-10% more energy out of the system overall as a result of this feature. The warmer your climate, the more you’ll gain here.

The manufacturer estimates its electricity production is just shy of that of a standard 4kW rooftop solar install.

Images that Electrek’s Haye Kesteloo, took in Newport, RI in September. Notice in the first image the structure’s height relative to the people around it. Healthy sized machine.

Electrek’s Take

Cool piece of hardware – just make sure you know what you’re buying it for.

The positives are that it keeps people from making holes in your roof, it captures sunlight more consistently during the day for longer hours, and the system size is big enough for an emergency panel.

The fact that the solar system produces energy consistently throughout the day is a big thing when you lose electricity. Sun intensity on a fixed solar system varies greatly during the day – when the sun is overhead production peaks, when the sun moves away it drops precipitously. A dual axis tracker is always facing the sun directly. It still varies as intensity varies, but not nearly as much. The consistency of output allows for designers to optimize your emergency electricity panel a bit better. A nerdy benefit, but not trivial if you’re making judgment calls on which items to include on that emergency panel.

In places where net metering doesn’t exist – this unit shines economically. Net metering lets us oversize at noontime to balance out the whole of our electricity bill (even at night). That’s a nice benefit of the legal system, but it’s a political creation that can be taken away and it warrants our attention until energy storage costs start reaching their potential. A system that smoothly produces all day long could be a great way to start designing a house’s future energy usage.

In terms of this emergency panel I keep mentioning, 2.5kW of solar running fairly consistently during the day is a decent amount of hardware. You can charge laptops and phones. Run plenty of LED lighting. And keep a fridge taken care of. The system is 1/3 to 1/2 what someone needs to cover their bills in the USA, but it’s enough to pack a healthy punch.

For most of us though, we’re not going to worry too much about the grid going down, and we’ve got pretty solid net metering. So, regular $/W price matters.

We’re going to compare it to buying a system and attaching that thing to our house for 25+ years. In this discussion we’re talking hard $/W and pricing is like a solar system from seven to ten years ago. 2.5kW on a dual axis for $25-30k installed is ~$6.50-7.50/W if production is comparable to a 4kW. Plenty of people installed solar at $7/W, a few small systems with ultra-premium products in remote locations with storage are still doing so (I’ve built them myself)…but it will take more than ten years to pay itself off in that time period if you’re paying $7/W. You’ll still get the 30% ITC and any local energy benefits.

Please do consider the upkeep. Solar systems on a roof really only need support sometime around year 15 if you lose an inverter. The panels come with 20 plus year warranties – and the racking never goes bad. However, the tracking hardware in the SmartFlower is a risk. The warranties vary by components from one to five years. What’s the long-term life of this unit?

Me, as a save-as-much-money-as-possible type of commercial installer, feels upkeep risks matter a lot. You as a hot-house, beautiful car, investing in the cutting edge to make sure the world moves forward type – a little O&M is standard for the good life.

I like the hardware. It has a place in the market. It looks well made. I’d love to see someone talking about it after having it for a few years.

Considering residential solar? Understand Solar will connect you with local contractors who could probably install a SmartFlower but can definitely install most anything else. Tweet me to pick apart quote.

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