Giving Kids the Building Blocks To Envision a Solar Future
As Part of the InSPIRE Project, NREL Senior Analyst Helped Dream Up a Creative Way To Educate about Energy, Water, and Food
In 2020, Rob Davis got Jordan Macknick hooked on the idea of a LEGO solar farm.
Davis is the director of the Center for Pollinators in Energy at Minnesota-based Fresh Energy. Macknick is a senior analyst at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). Together, they co-chair the research and outreach committee for the U.S. Department of Energy's Innovative Site Preparation and Impact Reductions on the Environment (InSPIRE) project.
The InSPIRE project has 30 solar farms across the country that serve as research sites on how low-impact solar development can improve soil health, retain water, nurture native species, produce food, and provide even-lower-cost energy to the community.
Both fathers to kids who love LEGOs, Davis and Macknick thought a solar farm kit was the perfect way to educate about low-impact solar. "Solar has primarily been pictured as a standalone system," Macknick said. "But energy, water, and food are basic and interconnected necessities of life. Solar farms can be designed to mutually benefit these systems. Our LEGO solar farm design can help visualize this different way of thinking for kids and adults."
Becoming a LEGO Fan Designer
LEGO allows fans to submit design concepts for the public to vote on. If a project gets 10,000 votes from people with a free LEGO Ideas account, company experts will review and potentially approve for it to be made into an official kit sold on store shelves worldwide.
LEGO currently has a wind turbine kit, modern home with rooftop solar kit, and several LEGO space kits with solar panels, but no solar farm kit. "LEGO's International Space Station kit started as a submission on the company's Ideas platform," Davis said. "As my kids and I were building it, we couldn't stop talking about what a LEGO solar farm should look like."
Some solar projects pair flowering vegetation with honeybee hives, some include vegetable crop production underneath the arrays, and larger ones graze vegetated groundcover with flocks of sheep. Davis and a friend, with Macknick's input, designed a solar farm with pollinator-friendly ground cover, honeybee hives, grazing sheep, an inverter control box, and an engineer/site manager/grazer. The kit includes 375 pieces and can expand to include multiple sets that snap together to build larger projects.
To accompany the kit, Macknick and Davis are creating an instruction booklet that educates about solar farms and their co-benefits, like higher crop yields, lower water requirements, and greater efficiency of solar panels.
"I geeked out over LEGOs as a kid," Macknick said. "To see the prototype after a year in the making is really cool."