Everybody likes the idea of solar-powered transportation, but it's easier to imagine as science fiction than it is to make real. But when an airplane took a 24-hour solar-powered flight -- and landed safely -- it got everyone fired up again. So here's a look at various forms of transportation driven by the sun -- none of them ready for commercialization just yet. But the dreaming is getting closer to reality.
The 11th semi-annual World Solar Challenge (first run in 1987) takes place in Australia next October, and it's a cross-country race for whimsical vehicles that are like giant solar panels with wheels. There's a sporadic U.S. version, too, the American Solar Challenge (run last June), and it's a great challenge for college teams and other contenders to get something across the finish line.
In production cars, solar can run the cigarette lighter or something equally undemanding. You can get a panel on the Toyota Prius as part of the Solar Sunroof Package (it keeps the interior cool). Toyota's Wade Hoyt told The Daily Green that only 15.4% have ordered that option since the 2010 Prius was introduced in May of 2009.
The upcoming Fisker Karma, a high-performance electric sports car akin to the Chevrolet Volt, also has a rooftop solar panel from U.S. Quantum, designed to produce about 130 watts and, like the Prius, run a fan to cool the interior (and replenish an on-board battery).
Even the organizers of the world's first 24-hour solar plane flight don't see this novel form of transportation replacing the jet anytime soon. But they definitely proved that, for the first time since Icarus came down to earth, zero emission flight is possible (well, besides human-powered aircraft perhaps).
The ultra-lightweight solar plane, like a giant dragonfly with a 207-foot wingspan and 12,000 solar cells, flew over the Jura mountains in Switzerland and reached nearly 30,000 feet before touching down July 8 near the Swiss capital of Bern.
The Solar Impulse is a single-seater plane that could, at least in theory, stay in the air indefinitely. But 24 hours is impressive enough. "We achieved more than we wanted," said solo pilot Andre Borschberg, whose flight was seven years in the planning. "Everybody is extremely happy."
The co-founder of the endeavor, balloon record-setter Bertrand Piccard, said the flight sets new standards for solar power. "There is a before and after in terms of what people have to believe and understand about renewable energies," he said. There are a number of other solar flight pioneers, including the Zephyr, which stayed aloft for 83 hours (but not with a person aboard).
The Southwest Solar Train Project is just a dream, from a visionary who'd like to see a high-speed magnetic levitation rail link between Texas and Phoenix or Los Angeles. "Electric trains," says Stu Baurmann, "are relatively comfortable, reasonably safe, and can run on any electric energy source, including the abundant solar energy available in the American Southwest."
Another idea, a bit long in the tooth now, was for a solar-powered light rail-type of thing in Santa Cruz. One that actually moves, though not all that fast (and on wheels), is the Urban Solar Train from Switzerland. "The main engine is powered by electricity, while most of the accessories are powered by photovoltaic energy," says the text accompanying the YouTube video.
More practically, Italy launched a train with solar power assist in 2005. Like the Prius, the panels on the roof provide energy to cool the passenger compartment (and also help with safety and lighting). PVTrain has been in development since 2003, and is partially funded by the European Union.
There's something awfully homemade-looking about this prototype solar bike. The photovoltaic panel appears kind of precarious there! The basis for the Sinclair Zeta II is an electric bike bought used on eBay for $40. The solar panel is a five-watt affair, and with it so jury-rigged it takes the owner daily the two miles to work.
For a mere $1,200 to $1,700 you can try an EV Sunny, a more professional version of the Sinclair Zeta II. With electric bikes, the solar panel may not make a huge contribution, but it's more than a decoration.
It is indeed possible to power a scooter on solar electricity. Indeed, the owner of one homemade version claims he's done 700 plug-free miles. It doesn't look all that high-tech. The ride is a stock EVT 4000E outfitted with a Xantrex (formerly Trace) C-40 charge controller, and four Atlantic Solar 30-watt panels, mounted two to a side. The panels fold open while in charging mode and are closed while driving.
Roger McGuinn of the Byrds also has a solar scooter, although his solar panels aren't onboard. The Rock and Roll Hall of Famer's approach seems eminently practical, and he reaches heady speeds of 20 mph. "Solar is the way to go," says McGuinn. Do try it at home!