I was looking for the epicenter of the solar revolution, and I found it at the Gathering of the Vibes.
Imagine a hippie rock festival so immaculately dedicated to the Woodstock legacy that a late-night performance by Phil Lesh and his (much younger) friends was treated like a visitation from the Gods. Imagine tie-dye as the uniform of choice, and the Bridgeport, Connecticut sea breezes scented with the aroma of much marijuana. It was there that I discovered the Solar Bus.
Although it is normally to be found in northern Vermont, the brush-painted Solar Bus was temporarily relocated to Bridgeport, where its roof-mounted solar array was recharging hippie cellphones and running a bubbling fountain and some hopping frog toys. At night, it ran a projector that showed cartoons to delighted camping children.
It is by no means coincidental that the owner of the Solar Bus, Gary Beckwith, is a former Deadhead. A wiry young man with a full head of black curls, he gravitates to summer festivals like the Vibes and Vermont's Solar Fest (which begins with a thanks to Mother Nature and a ceremonial invocation to the equinox).
But despite the countercultural trappings, Beckwith is a serious techie who has done great things with his Solar Bus, a 1982 Crown Supercoach that moved California school kids until 2003.
"We yanked out the seats, put some solar panels on the roof, gave it a paint job, and started driving around showing and teaching people about the real uses of renewable energy," says Beckwith.
Let me guess: Up to this point you probably thought that the Solar Bus was actually powered by solar, didn't you? Isn't that why they call it a solar bus?
The solar panels actually power appliances and even the occasional rock music stage, but they are hardly able to give a large steel bus much driving range.
"Everybody asks, 'Does the bus really run on sunlight?'" says Beckwith, hauling out a pile of solar pamphlets for the public's edification. "But there's just not enough surface area for the panels. With a solar-connected electric motor, we simply wouldn't be able to keep up with the power demand. It would only work if we drove a very limited route, or used the bus only on weekends." The bus' web address should be biobus.org; its diesel engine runs on recycled vegetable oil.
In most cases, the phrase "solar car" is a misnomer. The panels may run the radio or the cigarette lighter, but only in the case of extremely lightweight vehicles could they provide motive power. And the Solar Bus is no lightweight.
We need some perspective on solar power. It is indeed a miraculous, zero-emission electricity source. But it has its limitations, and we're not likely to run our cars on sunlight anytime soon. It infuriates me when greens state blithely that we can abandon fossil fuels and "switch to solar, wind and biofuels." There are huge challenges to each.
My visit to the Solar Bus was fun. I was reminded of it when I read an August 7 New York Times story about the designer Phillipe Starck. He claims to have designed a miniature wind turbine that mounts on your roof and costs between $780 and $1,250. Starck said his clear plastic-bladed turbine can "produce up to 80 percent of a home's energy."
The Times takes Starck (who's also designed a prefab green house, an electric car, a "solar- and hydrogen-powered boat" and an eco-moped) seriously, but I'm not sure I do. Many parts of our planet simply don't have enough available wind to turn his elegant turbine blades, and I think hydrogen- and solar-powered boats are way off. But who knows? Maybe in a year I'll be embarrassed by this column.
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