Bristol's growing orchard of solar trees

Millennium Square in Bristol has a new icon. And you can charge your phone on it.

The 15ft (4.5m) solar tree was ‘planted’ last month as part of Bristol’s year as European Green Capital.

Bristol solar tree. Photo: Alice Bell

Bristol solar tree. Photo: Alice Bell

The tree was designed and built by Bristol-based sculptor John Packer, working with energy campaign group, Demand Energy Equality. Solar panels built to look like a tree’s foliage were handmade by people recovering from addiction working with the Bristol Drugs Project, who regularly take Demand Energy Equality’s DIY solar panel workshops. It uses recycled fragments of broken panels that would otherwise be waste materials.

Photo: Demand Energy Equality.

Photo: Demand Energy Equality.

Blackberries and gooseberries grow in the tree’s shade, so you can re-charge some of your own batteries while you sit and wait for your phone to charge. It’s also a wifi hotspot, and the tree’s developers are encouraging people to share photos of themselves with a #selftree hashtag.

This Millennium Square tree is a successor to another Solar Tree built in 2012 in Brislington – an area in the south east of Bristol – which also included a rain-fed irrigation pump and aimed to inspire awareness of food resilience as well as energy futures. This version was even strong enough to climb.

Brislington solar tree. Photo: Demand Energy Equality

Brislington solar tree. Photo: Demand Energy Equality

If you want to power the whole town, you’ll need more than a solar tree. But we should possibly open up more spaces for renewable energy themed public art. We have parts of public spaces devoted to remembering wars or benefactors of a town, why not supplement these with icons of our aims for the future?

Public sculptures can be contentious in Bristol. In recent years, the city has been divided over a 19th century statue of one Edward Colston, a 17th-century merchant and MP whose wealth was built on the slave trade. In contrast, the solar tree reflects the community working together to create a glittering, functional piece of public art reflecting care for our shared future.

Every two years, the Land Art Generator Initiative invites artists and engineers to imagine how urban renewable energy projects might be beautiful, inspiring people with their aesthetics as well as functionality. They’ve offered ideas from a field of red solar balloons to a Viking-inspired series of giant horns built from decommissioned ships. But they’re all just artists’ sketches. With their solar trees, Bristol are making such visionary ideas a reality. Every town should have one.

Brislington solar tree at night. Photo: Demand Energy Equality.

Brislington solar tree at night. Photo: Demand Energy Equality.