Tuesday, September 27, 2005

That's It, I Want My Sunmobile

Every other year, the North American Solar Car Challenge tests solar-powered cars designed by various teams from colleges and universities. This July, the challenge started in Austin, TX and ended up in Calgary, Alberta (Canada). That's 2,500 miles, and the winning car did it in just under 60 hours. I'm surprised that the race got so little coverage here (though it was of course competing with Katrina). It seems like now, with gas around $2.75 nationally and spiking up to $4.00 in patches of the country, we should be paying more attention to technology that would let us run our cars on something other than oil. (The Heritage Foundation is rumored to have a plan to run them on the blood of the poor and the liberal, but it's apparently still in early stages.)

This could very easily turn into a predictable liberal screed on the backwardness of US energy policy in general, the backwardness of Bush's energy policy in particular, and the utopian potential of alternative energy sources. I'll try to avoid that.

But you know what? A more responsible energy policy--if not a wholly responsible energy policy--is easily within reach. Solar cars (or at least solar-gas hybrids) are neither fundamentally impractical nor generations away. You know how I know? I don't. I don't know enough about science to say these things with any authority. But you know why I so strongly suspect that it's true? I'll tell you: Principia College.

What, you're asking, is Principia College? Principia College is a 550-student liberal arts college in downstate Illinois. It's a Christian Science institution. It is, in fact, so dedicated to the principles of Christian Science that its website tells students that in case of a health emergency, step 1 is to turn to God. Step 2 is to go to the infirmary, where they can expect to receive Christian Science health care. Christian Scientists aren’t so much for the modern medical technology. (For example, although Principia offers an array of fascinating plant and environmental biology classes, the 2003-4 course catalog doesn’t even have a human or animal biology class.) Although Principia clearly has a lot of bright, motivated students and professors, it is by definition not an institution wholeheartedly devoted to the pursuit of scientific and engineering questions. It's not even an institution with an engineering major.

Principia College is, however, an institution that came in seventh out of eighteen teams in the North American Solar Car Challenge. Its car, built for one-tenth what some of its competitors spent, came in about eight hours behind MIT's and three hours ahead of Stanford's.

So here’s my question: if an underfunded team from a tiny institution whose students have to take classes outside the college if they want an engineering major can build a solar car that carries its driver 2,500 miles in 68 hours and only spend $200,000 doing so, why the hell does everybody talk about solar-powered cars as if they were flying cars?

Yes, I know that solar-powered cars don't work under all conditions. That's why the first commercial ones would mostly likely be hybrids, more or less on the model of current electric-gas hybrids, where the solar cells do at least some of the work now done by fuel cells (which are powered by the electrical grid and therefore mostly by nonrenewable, polluting resources). But my main point is more about initiative: if a bunch of twenty-year-olds--no matter how bright and motivated--with little training and few financial resources can do so much so well, why isn't our government more vigorously funding better-trained professionals and demanding far more impressive results?

Forget the piddling amounts of money and urgency that Bush included in his latest energy bill. Let’s put some real goddamn money and effort into this and make some real goddamn progress. I want my sunmobile.


At 3:10 PM , Blogger Ideasculptor said...

I think there are a whole lot of isues with solar as a viable transportation energy source. I'm no expert, so I can't speak to the contribution each plays in the overall analysis of viability but here are some that I have heard.

1. Cost - the vehicles in the race cost $200K and don't come even close to the safety standards that vehicles are required to adhere to. The are also uncomfortable single person vehicles with terrible performance characteristics for daily use. The slightest extraneous weight or aerodynamic inefficiency kills performance

2. Pollution - The process of building solar cells creates lots of nasty pollution, so they aren't nearly as 'emission-free' as we'd like to think

3. Weather - solar only works in limited geographic areas

4. solar/gas hybrids don't make a lot of sense. The gas engine produces electricity so much more effectively (although not more efficiently) that it just doesn't make sense to slap expensive solar panels all over a vehicle to charge a battery when regenerative braking and the gas engine's alternator can do the job for a tiny fraction of the cost in a tiny fraction of the time and with less risk of malfunction (a car covered in solar panels is necessarily more prone to failure, if only because of the sheer number of electrical connections that could fail).

I believe solar is pretty much a red herring for transportation energy, except where a gas hybrid could be plugged into the power grid in order to recharge the batteries while parked.

The answer to our transportation issues has to begin with public transport and a re-urbanization which cuts down on the sheer number of miles driven. Modern low-sulphur diesel engines get gas mileage into the upper 40's and low 50's in a compact sized car for a fraction of the cost of 'alternative fuels' (most of which just redistribute where the fuel is actually burned), and pollute less than the gas engines we are driving around in now.

We need to be utilizing technologies that are available today and known to work before we start throwing money after pie in the sky fuel cell and solar cell technologies that may never pay off. Low sulphur diesel (and the vehicles that run on it) isn't even available in North America, despite widespread availability in Europe. The claim is that we don't have the infrastructure for it, but we are, I guess, waiting for the oil companies to build that infrastructure. I have no idea why, since the oil companies have no incentive to build infrastructure which could, overnight, drop fuel consumption in half (or more).

Hell, modern diesel engines aside, take a look at the aerodynamics of vehicles sold only in america versus those sold overseas. Compare the profile of the front end of a mustang with the front end of something like an audi A4, and you'll see immediately why our national fuel efficiency is decreasing while europe's is increasing.

That front end has got to be worth 2-5 mpg, depending upon speeds.

In short, we aren't even trying...


At 5:22 PM , Blogger Jon E. said...

A lot of what Sam says about solar power may well be true. But I think in the way that matters most, we're closer to agreeing than disagreeing: we're not even trying.

I do think some of that trying should current cars. In particular, the government should impose more demanding per-car and per-fleet mpg quotas. This is done many other places in the world already, and foreign automakers (many of which produce their cars here anyway) would have to meet the tighter standards in order to sell their cars here. So I don't think there'd be much of a disadvantage.

But I think we also have to start making some significant changes to personal vehicles sold in this country, including making them way less dependent on oil.

I'm not as pessimistic as Sam about the prospects of making solar cars or solar-gas hybrids workable. To review his points:

1) COST. At this point I'm really not sure cost can be considered an issue. Right now, all the solar-powered cars are expensive because they're experimental, which is to say, built without mass production or economies of scale. The first gas car protoypes were probably about as expensive in real dollars. And I imagine big automakers easily spend more than $2m on their concept cars. If somebody comes up with a workable way to at least partially power a car with the sun, then the systems engineers can devise manufacturing techniques to mass-produce it cheaply.

2) POLLUTION. Pollution is a good point. It's a drawback with solar. What I don't know--anybody out there know this?--is how much pollution a solar cell puts out over its lifetime in comparison to the pollution generated by the equivalent amount of energy from coal, nuclear, or petroleum plants. My hunch is that solar is greener in the long run, but I'd be grateful if someone could point me toward hard data.

3) WEATHER. While it is true that solar works best in sunny areas, it will work at least somewhat even in cloudier areas. Again, without real hard data to back me up, my hunch is that anywhere convertibles sell well, solar power is a viable option at least part of the year. So if there's a market for convertibles, there will probably be a market (with different folks, I suspect) for solar cars.

4) HYBRIDS. I'd always assumed that the need to recharge the fuel cells in electric-gas hyrids meant that regenerative braking and the alternator weren't sufficient to keep the fuel cells charged. If that's the case, it seems like solar--either on the car itself or attached to the charger (which still counts as a sunmobile in my book--would still make sense. Or am I wrong about how the charging works?

Sam's points about re-urbanization and improved mass transit are good ones. No matter how "clean" the fuel source (from leaded gas to fusion), it makes sense to consume as little of it as possible.

The main point of my post--or what should have been the main point of my post--is not that a car covered in solar panels is the cure to all our ills, but that thinking and trying harder would be nice. Our government is doing dick to find alternative energy sources, to alternate energy sources (to diversify our sources and to take intelligent advantage of local options), and to cut down on energy expenditure in the first place.

I suppose I do have some sentimental attachment to solar power, and I do get a kick out of the solar-powered cars. But I think what I really wanted to drive home is that intelligent, motivated 20-year-olds operating on a shoestring budget and without an engineering program seem to have made more progress in transportation technology than big companies and allegedly big government, and I think that's a crock. God bless liberal arts majors, but they shouldn't be at the cutting edge of American energy policy.

At 2:21 PM , Blogger Ideasculptor said...

What drives me nuts is our lack of support for diesel engines here. Europeans are all driving around in fast, powerful, comfortable cars that get 40-50mpg, and which can comfortably run on vegetable oil, biodiesel blends, soybeans, or just about anything else we can think of. They are cleaner than the gas burning cars we are driving here, too. The only issue with having similar vehicles here is the availablity of low-sulphur diesel - and, of course, oil company resistance to technologies that will cut revenue in half overnight. Our government needs to take the lead on this one (as european governments did with high fuel taxes that caused consumers to demand high efficiency engines), because industry has absolutely no incentive to do so, and won't until it is too late for diesel to be a sufficient solution.

It is worth noting that many of the smaller diesel cars in europe get equal or better mileage than the smaller hybrids being sold in America, and most of the mid size diesels get better mileage than the mid-size hybrids sold here.

Diesel is the only way we can increase the mileage numbers for the national fleet, and the only way we can get the fleet average to increase quickly is to raise the price of fuel enough that it becomes cost effective to replace our gas guzzlers sooner rather than later. Otherwise, it will take 10 years before diesel, once it arrives, starts to affect our fleet averages. Will it have negative effects on the economy? Of course. So will running out of fuel before we have a solution in place. And I suspect the former is much preferable over the latter.

The only solution I want to see the government working on in the short term is a low sulphur diesel infrastructure followed shortly thereafter by a $2 per gallon tax on non-diesel gas. Re-urbanization will follow naturally shortly after that, as all the yuppies move closer to their jobs and their jobs move closer to the yuppies. And our farmers will be revitalized by the potential to grow the fuel necessary to provide transport to the country. You can grow soy wherever you can grow tobacco, for instance. I'd sure rather be giving my gas money to midwestern or Kentucky farmers than the Saudis, Kuwaitis, or even the Venezuelans. Let them sell to some other sucker.

Solar and hydrogen are great research projects that may pay off one day, but diesel will pay off tomorrow, no research necessary.


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