'Coal flowers' with 6.8kW of solar petals? It's child's play

Australia’s shift from fossil fuels to distributed renewables has been brought into sharp relief at Australia’s oldest adventure playground, depicted in a stunning new playscape combining both cutting edge solar technology and repurposed rubber conveyor belt salvaged from a local coal power plant.

Commissioned by the Fitzroy Adventure Playground – or Cubbies – the Coal Flower Project is a joint effort of award-winning Victorian design outfit, Agency of Sculpture, local solar installer Clean Technology Partners and US inverter giant Enphase Energy.
The five so-called coal flowers, each nine metres in height, are topped with solar panel petals, with each of the petal’s intricately designed panels connected by 25 of Enphase’s S230 microinverters.
This means that as well as providing shade for the playground, the flowers will generate solar power with a combined capacity of up to 6.8kW – enough to meet the energy requirements of the playground’s activity centre with surplus electricity exported back to the grid.
(Interestingly, Agency of Sculpture told One Step that they would have made more Coal Flowers, adding more solar PV generating capacity, had they not been restricted to a maximum of 5kW by the local network.)
Perhaps most importantly, the flowers provide a unique playscape for the children – many of them from refugee backgrounds – who live in the playground’s surrounding low-income housing estates in the inner-city Melbourne suburb of Fitzroy.

Indeed, the history of Cubbies – which has been a communal backyard for children at the Atherton Gardens Estate since 1974 – has served as the main inspiration for the new design, with sculptural flowers “growing defiantly” in what was once an inner city industrial site.
“It has a totemic legacy of solar is the future,” said Benjamin Gilbert, the director of Agency of Sculpture who led the design, and who also sourced the old rubber conveyer belts from an outfit in Wangaratta that specialises in recycling the old coal plant parts, mostly from the Latrobe Valley.
But Gilbert says his design of the coal flowers was also informed by the solar technology, and – he told One Step Off The Grid – “specifically to express the quality of the (Enphase) inverters, and what they offer from a creative perspective, with flexibility of the panels.”
“It stands up alone, just as a sculpture, as well as being a play element,” Gilbert said – and not to mention a renewables energy generator.
For Enphase, the playground is a first for the company in Australia, and a fine demonstration of what its technology can do.
“This playscape is truly unique as this will be the first time our microinverters have been directly installed to generate energy for an Australian playground,” said Nathan Dunn, the managing director of Enphase Asia-Pacific.
“Cubbies’ vision for this installation delivers a powerful statement about the future of solar energy and the impact our choices have on the next generation.”
For the Cubbies board – which is made up of volunteers who raised over $360,000 in cash and kind to fund the project – the addition of solar is all important, particularly considering they have just installed a reverse cycle heating and cooling system at the playground’s office and activity centre.

“We were having to close when days were getting to 35°C and above,” said David Weston, co-chair of the Fitzroy Adventure Playground, in an interview with One Step.
Weston says the playground’s straw bale building – built in 2007 with state government support – also needs to power a kitchen, for the after school feeding program, among other things.
He said the board was also considering adding battery storage “at some stage in the future”, to maximise the use of the solar system during the winter months.
“The Enphase microinverter technology meets stringent safety certification requirements which is crucial as children will be using the playscape,” Weston said in comments on Friday.
“Enphase microinverters offer greater reliability and the quality of their technology will ensure that our investment in this playscape has the longevity it deserves. This structure will serve the community for many years to come.”

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