Plant power: the new technology turning green roofs into living power plants

An innovative technology that uses living plants to generate energy has been launched in the Netherlands.

The technology harnesses the breakdown of organic matter produced by the plants in the soil and converts it into electricity that can be used to charge phones, power lights and cut down on a house’s reliance on external electricity sources.

Plant-e, the company behind the technology, has launched a range of products for different growing spaces, including parks, roofs and roundabouts. The first commercial installation of the product will be in Zaandam, the Netherlands, where the local government plans for the plants to provide on-the-go mobile charging for members of the public.

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The technology, which was originally developed in 2009 at Wageningen University, works by converting waste electrons and protons generated by bacteria in the soil into useable electricity.

Speaking in a company video, Dr David Strik, Plant-e founder and assistant professor at Wageningen University, explains: “In our technology the electrons flow through a power harvester to the cathode, where oxygen, protons and electrons meet to produce water. So by easily placing two carbon electrodes in the soil we can produce living green electricity.”

The system can work all year round, with the only downtime being if the soil completely freezes in very cold weather – giving it a significant advantage over other renewable technologies that only work in certain weather conditions and areas of the world.

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At present, Plant-e offers a number of products for specific spaces and functions. One, Plant-e Mobile, is a 100m² park with a mobile phone charging station.

Also available is Plant-e Hotspot, which uses the same area of park to provide wi-fi hotspots to visitors, something that could be extremely welcome in urban parks and gardens.

The company also offers Plant-e Roundabout, a version specifically provided for plant-covered roundabouts to power streetlights.

At the start of this month the company launched its Plant-e Green Electricity Roof system to businesses, and is planning to widen this to consumers soon. Suitable for any flat roof that can handle 200kg/m² of weight, the system has been trialled since 2010 on the roof of the Dutch Institute of Ecology.

The roof, which can be made from a wide variety of grasses, will require relatively low maintenance, requiring mowing just once a year. It should also be enough to put a serious dent in electricity bills – the company says 100m² will eventually be enough to cover the power needs of a typical Dutch household.

In the longer term the technology could also be used to large-scale living power plants in wetland areas such as “peat land, mangroves and rice paddies and delta areas”.

This would be using the Plant-e Tube System, a tubular system that the company is piloting from July. Plant-e hopes to have commercial versions of the system ready from 2015, so living power could soon be a major power source in many parts of the world.


Images and video courtesy of Plant-e.


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