Solar taxi continues its journey

TUFTS UNIVERSITY, MASSACHUSETTS - A car powered completely by the sun made a stop at the Fletcher School recently during a global tour promoting electric vehicles as a means of alleviating climate change.

Louis Palmer, a schoolteacher from Switzerland, has piloted the “solar taxi” through a 15-month voyage that will have spanned 28 countries when it enters Canada September 21.

Palmer called the journey unprecedented. “It’s, in fact, the first time ever in history that a solar-powered car has traveled all around the world,” he said.

Palmer was able to secure two silicon batteries valued at $15,000 dollars each, as well as solar panels, thanks to donations from the manufacturers; the panels were produced by Q-Cells AG. This made it possible for Palmer and a team of about 200 people, including Swiss students, to manufacture the car in about a year.

The vehicle uses solar energy directly when in drive but can go about 200 miles on a full charge of the battery, which it relies on when sunlight is unavailable.

It has never been tested during the winter.

Palmer noted that he installed half of the solar panels that he received on the car, and the other half on the roof of his home. This allows him to charge and run the car on solar power.

The car can travel about 60-66 miles on “a day with good sunshine,” a distance which Palmer said is adequate considering that the average North American car covers about 30 miles a day. It uses about 8 to 10 kilowatt-hours of electricity for every 100 kilometers (62 miles) and travels at a top speed of about 55 miles per hour.

Palmer said that his next prototype, which will likely not be produced until the end of 2009, should be able to reach speeds of up to 155 miles per hour. This should bolster its chances in a planned around-the-world race.

Palmer said the car underscores the increasing viability of innovative, clean energies that can help to reverse the effects of climate change.

“We have the solutions,” he said. “We can stop [the problem] if we want.”

Sarah Hammond Creighton, the program director at Tufts’ Office of Sustainability, said in her introduction to Palmer’s remarks that the vehicle provides a concrete example of energy innovation at work.

“The efforts of the solar taxi are a phenomenal way to get people engaged in things,” Creighton said.

She pointed to Tufts’ efforts to address climate change with programs such as research on electric cars, an electric lawnmower, and LED lighting systems. She noted that 100 percent of Tufts’ energy comes from natural gas and hydropower, resources that she said cut carbon emissions in half.

Had Palmer paid for the car himself, it would have cost him upwards of $60,000 dollars, but if mass-produced, the price to consumers would be much more manageable. The car could potentially be manufactured for $10,000 and have enough electricity to drive 10,000 miles a year, he said.

Palmer also said that the same amount of land used to produce ethanol fuel for a car to travel 20,000 miles could collect enough solar power for the same vehicle to travel 1.4 million miles, provided that the land is covered with solar panels and not corn stalks.

After leaving Switzerland, Palmer traveled through Europe, Asia and the United States, hosting personalities ranging from Jay Leno to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in his solar-powered car.

During his travels, Palmer observed that Germany was the most advanced country in terms of voltaic solar panels that are used for direct electrical energy, while Turkey was the leader in solar thermal panels that are used for heating.

Still, Palmer said that China is at the forefront of the nascent solar energy industry, noting a proliferation of new buildings there with solar thermal heating on top.

“This is the world leader… for new energies,” he said.

China is also the only country to mass produce the silicon batteries needed for solar cars, an undertaking which is essential to bring the price of the batteries down.

Japan barred the solar taxi from entering the country because of an unresolved dispute originating in World War II that concerns Swiss-licensed cars, but Palmer said that Japanese car companies are already capable of harvesting the benefits of solar power.

“They know how to do it. They don’t have to ask a Swiss schoolteacher how to do it,” he said, adding that increasing demand for electric vehicles among the people is the best way to effect change.

“What gives me hope [is that] no matter which country, there’s so much awareness [about] global warming,” he said.



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