The oldest known sundial was made in Egypt over 3,000 years ago, for telling the time as the sun passed through the day’s sky. Since then, we’ve upgraded our time-telling technology significantly—but the fascination with tracking the sun remains. 

Today, the sun’s power is often discussed as a means to create clean, renewable energy through solar photovoltaic and thermal cells. A recently announced permanent artwork in the city of Houston, Texas makes a way to celebrate sun-centered technology over the eons. Artist and architect Riccardo Mariano plans to build the world’s largest free-standing sundial which will simultaneously generate clean energy. The 100-foot-tall arch is expected to produce around 400,000 kilowatt-hours of solar electricity each year, equivalent to the demand of around 40 Texas homes. 

[Related: Scientists think we can get 90 percent clean energy by 2035.]

Artist and architect Riccardo Mariano originally entered the idea, called the Arco del Tiempo (Arch of Time), in a Land Art Generator Initiative (LAGI) design competition for Abu Dhabi in 2019. The arch has found its new home, however, acting as an entrance to Houston’s Second Ward community. The sculpture acts as a giant clock, as different beams of light create geometric shapes corresponding with the seasons of the year and the hours of the day on the ground and surfaces of the arch. At night, the arch will be used as a stage for concerts and other community events. 

Renewables photo
Rendering of the Arco del Tiempo (Arch of Time) at night. Credit: LAGI.

“The apparent movement of the sun in the sky activates the space with light and colors and engages viewers who participate in the creation of the work by their presence,” Mariano said in a release. “It is a practical example to illustrate the movement of the earth around the sun in a playful way.” 

The south-facing exterior of the giant arch will be linked with solar modules, which will allow the artwork itself to offset the power demand of the nearby community arts center Talento Bilingue de Houston. Over its lifetime, LAGI states that the artwork will be able to generate over 12 million kilowatt-hours of energy, enough to “pay back” the footprint required to create the artwork and it’s materials.

[Related: Solar panels are getting more efficient, thanks to perovskite.]

This isn’t the first, or likely the last, exploration of renewable energy as art. While some opponents to clean energy projects note the less-than-attractive appearance of solar panels or wind turbines lining the landscape, innovative projects can turn energy-generating projects into gorgeous murals to funky sculptures that double as charging stations

Robert Ferry, one of the Land Art Generator Initiative co-founders, hopes the Arco del Tiempo can hopefully act as “an antidote to climate despair” in one of the most climate change-impacted regions in the US. The installation is set to be completed in 2024.