Photovoltaics Take to the Road

Up until now I have discussed renewable energy in terms of powering a home. But some people are not content to limit their experimentation with renewable energy to the home front and are competing this week in an auto race from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to Colorado Springs.

The cars they are driving are all powered by the sun, using PV panels plastered on their upper surfaces. The race, which began on June 19th and will end on June 28th, is sponsored by General Motors (go figure) and Electronic Data Systems. Called Sunrayce97 it began in 1990 and has continued about every two years since then.

This year's race has 36 entrants from colleges across the United States. The cars will be traveling from Indianapolis to Colorado Springs entirely on secondary roads, complete with traffic and stoplights. Lest you think these vehicles are just glorified bicycles with tiny electric motors, the expected average speed for the 1242 mile trip will approach 40 mph this year. This is quite an improvement from the 24.7 mph average speed in the first year.

If you want to see these small, sleek futuristic cars and the teams that produce and run them, the race will finish at about 5 p.m. at Bancroft Park in Old Colorado City on Saturday, June 28th.

These particular cars aren't showroom ready just yet, however. At this point they are test beds and there will have to be a lot of changes in both the technology and our driving habits before vehicles like these start appearing on American roads.

This doesn't mean that electric vehicles aren't available in some form already. A new book by Michael Hackleman, the editor of Home Power Magazine's electric vehicle section, has a wealth of information on electric powered transportation of all kinds. The book, titled The New Electric Vehicles (available through Home Power Magazine 800-707-6585), covers everything from bicycles to boats and even airplanes.

The real meat of the book is about cars, however, from custom built formula racers to converted Hondas. Just about anything and everything you could ever want to know about electric vehicles is included in this book. It is a must-read for anyone with even a passing interest in electric powered vehicles.

Even though the current crop of commercially available electric vehicles don't have the capability of generating their own on-board electricity as the Sunrayce97 participants do, they can be charged through any source of electricity.

Electric vehicles have been touted as a way to reduce pollution and oil-dependency. One of the standard arguments against that claim is that electric vehicles merely transfer the pollution from the tailpipe of the vehicle to the smokestack of the power plant. It is true that most electric vehicles currently depend on grid generated electricity for recharging. However the amount of pollution produced per vehicle at the power plant is very much less than that produced by a typical internal combustion engine to power the same car. Also, electric vehicles would normally be recharged overnight, during the "off-peak" hours for electric generation.

The increased availability of electric vehicles, and their acceptance by the public, will lead to a greater interest in renewable energy. Alternative energy charging stations will become more commonplace, much like the ubiquitous PV powered lighting systems on our highways today.

Even in rural areas like ours, it will become easier for individual homes to have their own renewable energy powered charging station. With even a modest increase in range, from the current 60 to 100 mile range to somewhere between 125 and 150 miles, they would be practical for a lot of the travel we do around here. Both Canon City and Woodland Park round trips would be easily within that range.

Just in case you don't think we could get enough energy from the sun to power our cars consider this: the U.S. receives more energy in the form of sunlight in 40 minutes than it burns in fossil fuel in a year. This means we get over 3,000 times as much energy from the sun in a year as we do from fossil fuels. Utilizing even a fraction of that available energy will be a boon. The sun is a source of power we can tap into without ever worrying that the well will run dry.

To highlight that point even further, British Petroleum has now made their solar division one of the four major divisions of the company and plans to expand their solar operations from $100 mil/year to $1 billion/year. That's a significant investment by an oil company that is finally beginning to see the light (pun intended). In addition, British Petroleum has finally recognized the seriousness of Global Warming, putting BP on the map as the first major oil producer to do so.

As much as some of us may not like Big Oil and Big Auto (BP and GM), their willingness to embrace the technology of renewable energy and its practical application represents a sea change in the attitude of the corporate world. Once the big players get involved, it is only a matter of time before the use of solar and wind energy becomes commonplace. When that day comes, we will also see a lot more electric vehicles on our country's roads.

All Contents © 1998
Wagonmaker Press
Thomas W. Elliot


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