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Biosolar roofs greening our cities

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Instead of adding to global energy consumption, imagine if our cities could be redesigned to help combat the impact of climate change. That’s the vision of Dr Jana Soderlund and her colleague Professor Cheryl Desha – who believe biosolar technology is set to deliver widespread environmental, social and economic benefits.

The concept of biosolar involves combining vegetated roofs with photovoltaic solar panels on building rooftops. The desire to integrate nature with technology stems from a passion for the environment, which is held by both of these collaborators. It is also a field that has long interested Jana, evolving from her strong childhood connection to nature. Together Jana and Cheryl are determined to harness the potential of biophilic design, which asserts that humans have an innate connection with nature and that nature can assist to make buildings and cities more liveable.

For her doctorate, Jana undertook research on biophilic design initiatives in 10 frontrunner cities, interviewing leaders in government, industry, NGOs, corporate and civic arenas. Jana and Cheryl have been working with a number of colleagues, and leaders in varying arenas, to conduct global research on biophilic design for the last decade. One of their goals is to empower government, industry and community interest in investing in and trialling biosolar. “Biosolar is all about future proofing cities while connecting people to nature,” Jana explains. “We are past the point of preventing climate change – so now it is a matter of adapting our cities to these changes.” Countries leading the world in biosolar roof installations include the UK, Switzerland and Germany, with a number of governments having introduced legislation requiring all new city buildings to incorporate a green roof.

Vegetated roofs and photovoltaic solar panels work in synergy, enabling nature to provide a solution that delivers multiple benefits. The panels are installed on roofs in varying heights to provide protection for different species of plants that grow underneath them. The greenery works to keep the solar panels cool, which effectively increases their power production output. In addition, the vegetation lowers the heat load on the building’s roof and reduces air-conditioning needs and costs. This can help reduce the fossil fuel dependency of buildings, the carbon footprint and green house gas emissions. At the same time, green roofs provide niche habitats which encourage biodiversity, can be used for food production, reduces urban heat, enables water recycling, improves air quality, extends roof life and provides a social amenity.

Last year Jana and Cheryl formed a national partnership led by four Australian academics - who are based in Perth, Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney. They worked on building a prototype system to put urban rooftops to work in affordable ways. The research is focussed on establishing best practice for biosolar in Australian cities through looking at a wide range of variables including the height and transparency of the photovoltaic panels, plant species, water recycling, roof substrate and the slope of the roofs. A small pilot installation in Melbourne is underway drawing on a variety of STEM disciplines including mechanical, civil and electrical engineering, chemistry and biology.

For these determined STEM academics, the future of our cities is definitely green and they hope larger scale Australian trials will lead to the rolling out of biosolar installations across the country – to create liveable, sustainable and regenerative cities.

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