Visitors to Athens-Clarke County Library are now greeted by two ground-mounted solar panel structures in front of the building. These structures—a Solar Spotlight Curve solar power tree and a Smartflower solar flower—comprise the library’s solar installation, which we call our solar garden.
The 17-foot-tall stationary solar tree is a fixed, six-panel array that provides 120 square feet of shade and looks like a giant flower with a curved green stem. It has a 1.7 KW (DC) capacity and an annual output of 2,200 kilowatt-hours (kWh) (spotlightsolar.com/solar-structure-curve). Since installation, this array has produced 125–250 kWh of energy per month for our building. The solar tree also features the library’s logo as the center floret, which can be seen by passing drivers. We expect the logo will also be a visible identifier on updated Google Earth maps.
The solar flower is a 194-square-foot structure with 12 solar petals that track the sun throughout the day to efficiently collect energy—just like a real sunflower. Its petals retract at night and during high wind speeds. The solar flower has a nominal output of 2.5 KW (DC) and an annual output of 4,000–6,200 kWh (smartflower.com/tech-specs). It was chosen for the library’s project as a visually appealing alternative to solar roof panels.
The solar garden is just a first step in our effort to help the county meet its commitment to 100% renewable energy. The solar and LED lighting retrofit programs are projected to cut our annual carbon dioxide emissions by nearly 59 tons per year, while saving the library approximately $10,000 a year. However, perhaps more importantly, the solar garden serves as a highly visible, attractive example of environmental sustainability to the community; it provides unique educational opportunities for the public. The solar tree and solar flower stand together in a green space in front of our building and are visible to those who visit the library or see it from the street. And, as the building receives regularly scheduled roof replacement in the future, the county is committed to increasing the amount of solar deployed at the library.
Visitors frequently comment about the solar garden, expressing pride in their library’s innovation. Teens take advantage of the shade provided by the solar tree, and children marvel at the beauty of the solar flower’s petals. The structures also complement the library’s outdoor art, which consists of two metal sculptures on campus.
Patrons can view the energy output from the solar panels via an interactive kiosk in the main lobby of the library. The kiosk is a floor-standing model with a 42" screen. The energy output is displayed on the kiosk by a web-based platform that allows visitors to view—in real-time or in reports—the details of energy consumption and production as well as electrical loads for the facility. The kiosk provides information, monitoring, and live demonstrations.
This data can help patrons understand how solar energy collection is affected by changing weather conditions, time of day, and other factors. For example, patrons are able to compare energy outputs and see how much of an impact a cloudy day has on solar energy collection versus a sunny day. Students working on class projects can see how much solar energy is collected at various times during the day. Over time, they will be able to compare the differences in energy output at different times of the year. The solar installation’s performance and data are displayed in a variety of ways to increase engagement and understanding. For example, the library’s carbon footprint is one of the measures displayed on the kiosk. This metric demonstrates the solar garden’s impact in terms of the acreage required to sequester the carbon generated by the facility. (While we occasionally find patrons in our busy lobby using the solar data kiosk to access the web, we hope to fix the glitch in the kiosk software that lets them do that ASAP.)
The solar installation is a physical component of the library’s continued commitment to environmental and green energy initiatives. Library staffers offer a range of creative programming designed to educate people of all ages about the benefits of solar power and other sustainable initiatives.
For example, the library partners with the Athens-Clarke County Unified Government each spring to host the Green Life Expo, a free community-wide event in which businesses, organizations, and residents come together to learn how to reduce their carbon footprints. This event draws hundreds of people each year and includes vendor exhibits, family activities, and seminars on things such as solar panel installation, recycling, and composting.
In September 2018, the library hosted an evening program in which residents learned how a local private school uses solar arrays to save money on its power bill and make a positive environmental impact at the same time. Many people in the audience expressed interest in finding information about how to retrofit their homes to use solar panels, and representatives from a nearby solar installation company were on hand to answer questions. The audience was enthusiastic about the potential utility of solar panels, not just for power bill savings, but also for the benefits to the environment.
Of course, not all programs about the power of the sun are strictly educational. Sometimes, they’re also delicious. The library’s teen services department demonstrated how the sun’s rays can be hot enough to toast a marshmallow. Teens crafted solar-powered ovens against the backdrop of the solar flower to make s’mores. In doing so, they learned how the power of the sun can heat up a foiled-covered pizza box and make a yummy treat.
Children’s area staffers frequently plan programs for young children and families that include upcycled crafts, which highlight sustainability as an everyday habit. For example, families have created unique sea creatures from plastic water bottles at a special water-themed storytime. At another event, children made their own musical instruments from coffee cans and other donated materials, before enjoying a drum circle activity.