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Green design in 2017: More solar, wind, and algae

All the top news and trends

modular urban gardening system
A modular urban gardening system by Danish architects Sine Lindholm and Mads-Ulrik Husum.
Husum & Lindholm

In 2017, sustainability is often the thread that connects many of the topics we cover here at Curbed, from architecture and product design to transportation and infrastructure. Browse our “Green Design” group and you’ll find that this year had no shortage of projects and innovations that paint a picture of how we might live in future.

What were the most salient themes? From a helluva lot of development in solar to more sophisticated urban farming, below we give you a rundown of the sustainable design news to know from this year.

All solar everything

A close up of an early Tesla solar roof installed.
What the first Tesla solar roofs look like in the wild.

In 2017, solar power is no longer constrained to the bulky panel shape long associted with the technology. There is, of course, the much-buzzed-about solar roofing from Tesla (and a few other startups) that blend right into the architecture. And a flower-shaped sun-tracking system finally available for purchase. And a 16-mile stretch of solar highway in Georgia. And how about the beginnings of “solar blinds,” “solar windows,” “solar glass bricks,” and “solar paint”? The future is bright.

Meanwhile, college students in the U.S. and abroad built some incredible solar-powered homes for the 2017 Solar Decathlon. Copenhagen completed a school covered in 12,000 solar panels. China launched both the world’s largest floating solar farm and the first of 100 planned panda-shaped solar farms to help promote green energy to youth. Lastly, you should know that the Kentucky Coal Museum also turned to solar power this year.

The future is batteries?

Two years after Tesla announced its game-changing home batteries for solar power, the market is more active than ever, with other players like Mercedes-Benz and Ikea, not to mention DIYers, getting in on the game. Utility-scale battery systems are also on the rise. And in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, both Tesla and German company Sonnen went in and set up solar power and storage systems to restore power to affected communities.

Paving better roads

U.K. startup MacRebur paves roads with recycled plastic.

Roads, especially those riddled with cracks and potholes, have proven to be ripe for sustainable reinvention. This year, we heard about researchers and engineers developing paving material with recycled plastic, solar panels, and cigarette butts, not to mention a pilot project planning to embed city roads with data-collecting sensors.

More EVs beget more charging stations

Volkswagen electric microbus concept
Volkswagen’s bringing back its iconic microbus as an EV.

There was no shortage of blockbuster EV unveils this year, from an electric version of the classic Volkswagen microbus to Tesla’s Semi truck and roadster (and perhaps soon a pick-up truck too?) Meanwhile, the charging infrastructure required to keep range anxiety at bay are also racing forward. Tesla announced it would double its Supercharger network this year, and Europe’s first ultra-fast public EV charging station just opened in Germany. Also in Germany: a new technology that turns any street lamp into a charging station electric cars.

Offshore wind farms on the rise

giant wind turbine
The giant turbine created by MHI Vestas Offshore Wind in Denmark.
MHI Vestas Offshore Wind

“More, bigger, stronger” was the name of the wind power game in 2017. The year started off with news of Denmark’s 721-foot-tall offshore wind turbine breaking the record for energy generation in a 24-hour span. Off the coast of Liverpool, England, 32 massive turbines, each with arcs larger than the London Eye, were installed. Off the coast of Peterhead, Scotland, the world’s first floating wind farm also went live this year, generating enough energy to power 20,000 homes.

Stateside, New York is on track to get the country’s largest offshore wind farm by 2022, with 15 turbines generating enough energy to power 50,000 homes.

Greenery for good

Shipping containers become urban farms with startup Square Roots.

In 2017, urban gardening is more than personal planters and rooftop farms. Designers and engineers are coming up with all kinds of neighborhood solutions like “shipping container farms” taking over vacant lots and modular gardening systems that can shift shapes based on the setting.

One kind of plant that’s particularly en vogue? Algae. This year, Ikea’s Space10 lab developed the Algae Dome as a prototype for food-producing architecture. Designer and biotechnologist Julian Melchiorri introduced an air-purifying algae chandelier. Dutch designers also began using algae to make gorgeous 3D-printed tableware.

Geothermal energy emerging

A geothermal plant in Iceland
A geothermal plant in Iceland.

Solar and wind get most of the attention when it comes to renewable energy. But this year, we also heard a lot about geothermal energy, or heat from the earth. In Iceland, an experimental volcanic geothermal well project is projected to produce 10 times more energy than oil or gas sources. New York City’s iconic St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue also installed a 10-well geothermal heating and cooling system to cut energy needs and CO2 emissions while improving ease of temperature regulation.

And you know it’s about to get real when Google gets involved. Over the summer, the company’s “moonshot factory” spun out a new startup, Dandelion, dedicated to bringing affordable residential geothermal energy to the masses.

Better infrastructure for cyclists

Netherlands bike parking garage
The world’s largest bike parking garage opened this year in Utrecht, Netherlands.

As part of Curbed’s first ever Transportation Week earlier this year, we took stock of the current state of urban cycling, from new products and technology to paths and bike share systems. A lot of the attention-grabbing bike infrastructure news continues to come from Europe, like Berlin’s plan for 13 new bike superhighways, London’s pledge to spend on $1 billion on bike lanes and superhighways, and Utrecht’s massive new bike parking garage. But there is progress stateside—in fact, check out this whole rundown of how 10 U.S. cities are pushing cycling forward.