What the heck is that solar-powered tree by the Panthers stadium?

Duke Energy, as if to prove it has a whimsical side, is testing a new sort of streetlight that resembles an electronic tree.

Charlotte’s lone eTree stands on a corner opposite Bank of America Stadium, its square boughs tilting the seven solar panels that power it toward the sun.

Offering LED light by night, shade by day and Wi-Fi, USB charging ports and a bench anytime, the tree is a little oasis set in concrete. It’s “kind of an esthetic way to showcase” the technology, said David Hinkle, Duke’s manager of strategy for outdoor lighting.

Duke’s emerging technology office found the trees, which Sologic makes in Israel and were featured at the Paris climate summit in December. eTrees have also been installed in Europe and the Middle East.

The Charlotte tree, paid for by shareholders, has been in test mode for about two weeks. The tree is powered by two lithium acid batteries that can supply electricity for up to 48 hours, but has a hard-wired backup.

LED fixtures use less energy and are more durable than conventional bulbs. Duke has converted nearly 200,000 outdoor lights in the Carolinas to LEDs and plans to upgrade 100,000 more this year.

Duke tested the tree’s ability to withstand the elements, but wants to learn how long it can light without sunshine, what its maintenance needs are and how customers respond.

“There’s a lot to it, so it’s hard to understand exactly where it fits, but I don’t think it’s a novelty application,” Hinkle said.

But at $70,000, neither are electronic trees likely to line the streets of Charlotte.

Photo: Mark Hames/Charlotte Observer