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A ‘SmartFlower’ Grows in Chicago: Innovative Solar Design Powers Affordable Housing Complex

Renewable Energy
SmartFlower solar arrays like this help a community cut costs and learn green energy skills. martin_vmorris / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

A unique type of flower is growing in a community garden in Chicago's South Side.

The SmartFlower is a special type of solar panel array designed to open into the shape of a flower in the morning and generate electricity by following the sun across the sky during the day, like its namesake.


Its design makes it the perfect solar array for an urban area where space is tight, and that's why it has become one of the first community solar projects to be installed in Illinois since the Future Energy Jobs Act in 2016 called for 400 megawatts worth of community solar installations by 2030, Energy News Network reported Wednesday.

The SmartFlower was installed in the vegetable garden of an affordable-housing complex run by The Renaissance Collaborative (TRC), which supplies affordable housing and job training to low-income communities in Chicago's South Side.

TRC Executive Director Patricia Abrams told Energy News Network that renewable energy projects like this one had a double benefit for community organizations looking to serve people economically.

"If you're going to deal with and provide services for the very low-income people, that means the government is picking up the tab," Abrams said. "How do you—in the long haul—make that sustainable and affordable? Energy efficiency is one of those things I think is a must."

Abrams told Energy News Network that the SmartFlower generated energy for the first time at a press conference in June, but has lain dormant throughout the rest of the summer as TRC waits for a full permit.

The TRC installation is the first in a partnership between community-solar developer Groundswell and the Mohawk Group, a flooring company dedicated to sustainability, to install 10 SmartFlowers in communities around the country within the next two years, Groundswell said.

The collaboration will save 3.3 kilowatt-hours of energy, enough to power 300 average U.S. homes.

For the Chicago installation, the groups also partnered with Elevate Energy, which is committed to expanding clean energy use to all who need it.

Elevate Energy Contractor Development Coordinator Eya Louis explained to Groundswell how the Chicago project also empowered the community to get involved with its own energy generation.

"We surveyed residents right away to see if there were any established electricians or carpenters or other tradespeople who could be a part of this project," Louis told Groundswell. "Next, we offered training in solar installation with a local company. At our unveiling, we had our solar trainees there to witness some of what went into the installation. The instructor talked to them about the permitting process and will continue to work with them," she said.

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