The advances — and setbacks — in solar electricity are being followed by the media (and sun power fans and detractors) with bated breath; even President Obama was asked recently about the Solyndra fiasco and if China is going to bypass the U.S. in solar panel production.


How much, and how fast solar energy production will grow is one of the keys to energy independence after all, and while dwarfed by oil companies at this point, is becoming big business worldwide.


But not all solar stories are about big business, peak oil or global competition. Sometimes they're about playing with forms and materials, and coming up with new ways to use the sun to our advantage. These two examples below are interesting takes on the concept of solar energy and how to use it. No, they are not the greenest inventions in the world, but they do show how creative thinking, great design and environmental awareness can come together to surprise and delight.




Anyone who has used a solar gadget charger will tell you that the hardest thing to remember is to take it out and use it. I'm a compulsive anti-clutterer, and so my Solio has stayed in my "tech drawer" more than it should have. The attractive solar bonsai Electree, created by Vivien Muller, is both a sculpture and a functional gadget-charging device all in one, and as you can see is lovely enough to remain on display (and gathering energy) even when not powering up a device. The designer was inspired by real trees and how they naturally gather solar energy via their leaves and turn it into growth energy through photosynthesis. Each of the 27 solar panel "leaves" can be moved individually to fit into a space, adjust to changing light conditions, or so it can be moved from space to space. The base platform provides a space to leave charging devices (cameras, phones or GPS systems). 


The LEGO greenhouse is just what it sounds like: a fully functional greenhouse that has real plants growing inside (looks like sunflowers!). According to the London Design Festival's site: "The LEGO Greenhouse is the first fully functioning greenhouse built entirely from LEGO bricks. The walls, the floors, even the earth is LEGO bricks. The plants and vegetables growing inside are however, entirely real." Located in Covent Garden in London, this simple structure takes a toy and makes it useful, challenging the ideas about what is a plaything and what is a practical thing. 

Starre Vartan ( @ecochickie ) covers conscious consumption, health and science as she travels the world exploring new cultures and ideas.