EAU CLAIRE — Instead of a wooden trunk and leafy canopy, a tree set for planting in the Cannery District will be made of steel and solar panels.
On Wednesday morning the Eau Claire Redevelopment Authority agreed to allow the installation of a solar tree structure on land it owns near the intersection of North Oxford Avenue and Platt Street.
“I’m excited that the Cannery District will host the first of these solar trees,” said Thomas Kemp, chairman of the RDA Board. “We expect the district to be an up-and-coming area in Eau Claire. With the proximity of the riverfront path and several new developments, this seems like a good place to locate this new technology.”
The solar tree is set to be located by a new section of paved recreational trail that will connect to an existing trail in the Cannery District that skirts along the west bank of the Chippewa River. Nearby is land where Duluth, Minn.-based developer P&R Companies is proposing to build $53.3 million of new storefronts and apartments.
The city is working to finalize a purchase agreement to buy one of the solar trees produced by Eau Claire-based company Solar Forma. As of Wednesday, the city did not have detailed cost figures available for the purchase and installation of the solar tree. Money to pay for it is expected to come from a fund the city had previously created for investing in renewable energy projects.
Kemp said the solar tree represents a lot of the city’s values.
“I think it says that Eau Claire is developing its infrastructure with eye towards the future while also emphasizing local capabilities,” said the RDA chairman. “This solar tree is locally produced, has a green functionality and is aesthetically pleasing.”
Brian Graff, general manager of Solar Forma, said his company is proud that its hometown will be the first to install a solar trees.
“We’re very grateful to put it up on our home community and start up what we hope is a successful product launch,” Graff said during Wednesday’s RDA Board meeting.
Designed to resemble acacia trees found in Africa, Solar Forma’s E-Cacia has steel supports shaped like a trunk and branches that support a canopy of solar panels. Those panels power a built-in Wi-Fi hotspot, but also can be used by people to charge smartphones and contribute energy to the electrical grid. The solar trees also have the option of being able to charge e-bikes — bicycles equipped with electric motors, which are gaining in popularity.
During optimal sunshine, one of the solar trees generates up to 4.8 kilowatts of electricity, Graff said.
In addition to generating clean energy, the tree produces shade during the daytime and has lights on its underside to illuminate it at night.
Marketing materials provided by Graff, show the E-Cacia ranging in height from 15 to 21 feet, and its canopy’s width has similar measurements. The list price for one is $58,000, according to the company’s materials.
Solar Forma has a prototype model standing outside its offices at Artisan Forge Studios in Eau Claire, and complete production-level model is slated to be put up in about a month.
The company is already getting interest in the product from numerous companies, Graff said, but Eau Claire is where the first solar tree is planned for installation.
Once the city’s purchase order is finalized, Graff said it should take about 90 days to deliver the solar tree.
Installing it is expected to happen in late summer or fall to coincide with roadwork that is already under way in the Cannery District.
The RDA previously reviewed a request in November from a downtown business group that wanted to put a solar tree with a visitors information kiosk on a vacant lot along North Barstow Street. While the RDA liked the project, it did not agree to allow a solar tree at that location because its land there is being actively marketed for development.