Down to Earth Starstuff

In my last column I wrote about Sunrayce97 which, in 1997, ended up in Bancroft Park in Colorado Springs on the 28th of June. This race of solar powered cars showcases the engineering talents of students from colleges and universities across North America. Maggie and I had the opportunity to go down to the Springs and view these incredible vehicles and talk with some of the team members. The winning team from Cal State L.A., came in with an average speed of just over 43 mph.

Each car was limited to the same size bank of photovoltaic cells, approximately 8 square meters, which produced 1000 watts of power. Each had a battery bank which would allow them to run for a while during cloudy weather. The limitation on the amount of PV for each vehicle meant that the students had to calculate the most efficient speed to maximize battery life over the 1242 mile length of the race. They had to factor in such things as weight and aerodynamics as well as power production to produce a vehicle that would keep up with the pack and make it to the finish line.

Lest you think that all this is just an interesting, albeit esoteric, exercise for a bunch of engineering students, they followed much the same thought processes that go into designing a PV system for a home.

I happened to get into a discussion with a gentleman in the park who took the attitude that renewable energy needed to "catch up" to the reality of the average homeowner who still wanted lots of energy hogging "conveniences". I must disagree with that attitude. I would suggest that reality of the next millennium will be just the opposite. The average homeowner will "catch up" to the realities of independent energy production.

Rather than being a limitation in our lifestyles, renewable energy is a "next generation" technological advance that will ultimately expand our options. By assuming that our "conveniences" have to be provided for us through a fossil fuel based power grid we are actually limiting our options rather than encouraging technological advancement.

That belief was reinforced this week with the landing on Mars of the Mars Pathfinder mission. As I watched the first pictures come in of the lander on the surface of an alien planet I realized I was looking at a picture of yet another solar powered vehicle. The Sojourner Rover that will wander the planetís surface gets all of its energy from a PV array that covers the top of the vehicle. In fact, it looked very much like the bigger Sunrayce cars we had seen in Colorado Springs.

I realized, as I watched those amazing spacecraft performing flawlessly on an alien world 120 million miles away, that solar energy is a fundamental component of our exploration of other planets. When (not if, but when) we return to the moon for extended stays and go on to send a team to Mars for lengthy exploration, the installations the astronauts live in and depend on for survival will be powered by PV panels.

Those engineering students who participated in the Sunrayce™ will be right at home after graduation at NASA or the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Rather than being merely an educational exercise, their experiences during the solar race will be directly translatable to their future employment.

PV is not new to space exploration, panels have been used to power spacecraft since the earliest satellites. The international space station, when it becomes functional early in the next century, will be powered completely by PV. What is new is the realization that this futuristic technology is becoming more commonplace here on the Home Planet.

The development of the automobile at the turn of the century provided greater freedom and independence for the average American. The turn of the next century will see even more development and acceptance of renewable energy systems that will provide greater freedom in our homes from dependence on finite energy sources.

As I sat in my living room this past weekend, watching those fascinating images from space, I felt a much greater connection to the space program than I have since the moon landings. While the solar panels on the petals of the Sagan Memorial Station and the roof of the Sojourner Rover gleamed in the Martian sunlight, so too did my solar panels gleam in Earthly sunlight, generating the energy to run my TV. My solar powered satellite receiver, tuned to the NASA channel, received its signals from an orbiting satellite itself powered by PV panels. And I watched as a little PV-powered robot moved across an alien landscape, extending the reach of the human race to another planet.

All Contents © 1998
Wagonmaker Press
Thomas W. Elliot


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