Traveling the world in a solar car

VANCOUVER, BRITISH COLUMBIA - As a teen, Louis Palmer dreamed about circling the globe in a solar-powered vehicle.

With his dream all but realized, the 36-year-old Swiss citizen rolled into Vancouver recently in a three-wheeled, two-seat car that's powered entirely by electricity produced by the sun. He's starting the North American leg of an 18-month tour that's taking him 50,000 kilometres through 40 countries.

"I'm showing people that we have a solution to global warming," Palmer said in an interview. "Does it go up hills? No problem. It's a Swiss car. At night, I travel 300 kilometres on solar power. And it's like an ordinary car. It's very stable and has a maximum speed of 90 km/h."

No heater? Again, no problem. "I travel in the summer."

Palmer's SolarTaxi - he usually takes on passengers wherever he travels - was welcomed in Vancouver by business, environmental and government officials, including the consulate of Switzerland and Burnaby-based advanced solar manufacturer Day4 Energy.

Palmer, a school teacher who developed his SolarTaxi in 2004 with the help of four Swiss universities, has already driven through eastern Europe, Saudi Arabia, India, Indonesia, Australia, New Zealand and from Singapore to South Korea through China.

He gets about 50 per cent of the power for his car's batteries directly from the four-metre-long solar panel trailer he tows. The rest he gets by plugging his car into the local electrical grid wherever he is.

To offset the electricity he gets from local grids, Palmer - who also has solar panels on his Swiss home - provides the equivalent amount of energy free of charge to the Swiss grid.

"I feed solar energy into the (Swiss) grid. It's the same amount that I take out anywhere in the world.

"And the technology works. I'm not an engineer. Even a school teacher can drive it around the world."

Palmer noted that in Canada, only Ontario makes it profitable for residents to install solar panels in their homes and sell excess power to the provincial grid. "Ontario and 30 countries do this and they (the residents) get really good money."

One of those greeting Palmer in Vancouver was Jake Brown, vice-president of marketing and business development for Burnaby-based Day4Energy, which produces panels for solar cells.

"This (SolarTaxi) is bringing to light the efficiencies of solar," said Brown in an interview. "Most of our sales are in Europe, (but) this is a rising energy source and we're looking to expand in North America."

Also on hand was Vancouver Electric Vehicle Association president Don Chandler, who said Palmer's trip is an inspiration. "He's driven around the world virtually for free," said Chandler in an interview. "And this technology is totally applicable. Electric vehicles are very practical here. It's a matter of scaling up the technology to get the costs down.

"And that knowledge base is extremely prevalent in Vancouver."

Chandler, who had several electric vehicles on hand for the event, cited a retrofitted Geo Metro, which runs completely on battery power and goes for 230 kilometres between charges.

So why haven't electric cars taken off?

"Demand. People haven't demanded it. But interest is swelling and it's exciting for us. And when we experience the last drop of oil, it's the only thing possible.

"We're always asked, 'How far can they go?' Well, now I have an answer. Around the world."

Adriane Carr, deputy leader of the Green Party of Canada, said in an interview that the SolarTaxi is wonderful. "I love it. Why aren't we building them in Canada? We're shutting down car factories. We should be retrofitting them to build electric vehicles.

"Ultimately, that's the route. That's what we need for the economy and the planet."

Carr said Ontario has Canada's first "feed-in" law, which means people can produce electricity and sell it back into the grid. "We should definitely be doing that in B.C."

Joan McIntyre, Minister of State for Intergovernmental Relations, said in an interview that the B.C. government is looking at a variety of alternate energy sources. "And what a great example this (SolarTaxi) is. Where there's a will, there's a way."

Walter Deplazes, consul-general of Switzerland, said in an interview that the SolarTaxi "shows that Switzerland is not only cheese and chocolate, but a high-tech country."

Deplazes, who said solar power plays a major role in private and official buildings in Switzerland, noted that a solar airplane project spearheaded by Swiss scientist Bertrand Piccard, who made the world's first around-the-world balloon flight in 1999, is scheduled to up and running in 2011.


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