Hurricane Sandy, Solar Power, and an "Aw Shucks" Moment

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Dec 12, 2012

This is an “aw shucks” human interest story, though it’s animal-free as far as I can tell. Might be some stray dogs or cats wandering around in it. It’s a ray of light in the darkness that was Hurricane Sandy, and if it makes you feel good (like a particularly riotous session of Car Talk), well, be nice to somebody today.

Rob van Haaren (in red) and Garrett Fitzgerald with their portable solar in Queens. (Solar Journey USA photo)
Rob van Haaren (in red) and Garrett Fitzgerald with their portable solar in Queens. (Solar Journey USA photo)

It starts with two regular guys, who happen to be Ph.D. students at Columbia University: Garrett Fitzgerald (who’s American) and Rob van Haaren (who’s Dutch). Garrett studies carbon sequestration and natural gas recovery, and Rob, the grid integration of solar energy. They’re green. Anyway, they got the idea to drive electric vehicles across the country, fueled by the solar panels they’d tow behind them. Along the way, while their EVs recharged, they’d hold workshops and enlighten people about the promise of solar. They’re calling the 3,200-mile trip across the country (along a southern route) Solar Journey USA. Here's the planned trip on video, with cool animation:

Let’s just say that the drive, scheduled for next summer, ran into a few potholes. The initial brainstorm was to do the trip on electric motorcycles but Rob says, “We realized that motorcycles aren’t used as much as cars, so it would be harder that way for people to make connections to their own lives.” The team is still waiting for their email to Tesla’s Elon Musk to yield the keys to a Roadster or Model S. Smart offered an Electric Drive, but they figured it lacked the range and towing capacity they need. Plug-in hybrids started to look good. Talks with General Motors about a Volt are somewhat promising. I told them they should check out the hot-off-the-press Ford C-MAX, which comes in both hybrid and plug-in hybrid versions.
But while waiting for a ride, the team went ahead and built the trailer, relying on donations and reduced-cost purchases. They scored 6.5 kilowatts of First Solar panels, as well as inverters, junction boxes and maximum power point trackers (which monitor voltage for maximum efficiency) from OutBack Power, plus battery back-up from Trojan, and stored the whole mess in New Jersey. Then Sandy happened.

Rob and Garrett's solar panels doing their job in Queens. (Solar Journey USA photo)
Rob and Garrett's solar panels doing their job in Queens. (Solar Journey USA photo)

According to Garrett, “We realized we didn’t have to leave our trailer under a tarp in New Jersey when it could be used. There were still a lot of power outages in [Queens, New York beach community] Far Rockway, and we knew that temporary PV could help.”
And so they schlepped the trailer to Queens with a borrowed truck, and parked it in a grassy lot behind St. Gertrude’s Church, home of community and youth centers, and also a focal point for Occupy relief activism. It’s where people came, and continue to come, for food, clothing and other essentials. The church is a few hundred yards from the ocean, in a neighborhood absolutely devastated by the storm—flooded basements, electric panels ruined by salt water, the whole nine yards. Here's how important solar became in Far Rockaway:

The trailer gathered power from the sun for three weeks, powering lights and computers and helping run a kitchen at the church, altogether generating an estimated 600 kilowatt-hours over 21 days. It made a big difference to have lights when the church served Thanksgiving dinner for 200 people. “It worked quite well,” says Rob, who notes that the lights finally came back on in Far Rockaway, so it’s time to pick up the trailer.
Now Rob and Garrett are once again focused on their upcoming trip. The trailer weighs 6,700 pounds, so they’re not going to be towing it with a Smart car. Garrett said that initial plans were to use thin-film solar panels, which are seven times lighter than the conventional kind, but that’s not what they scored for free.
The plan is to travel 150 to 220 miles a day, and charge only from the solar panels—even if public EV charging is available. “We’re going to set up at universities and public parks,” Garrett said. “And we hope to get a lot of people interested in photovoltaics. The drive is more about outreach and education than just driving a car across the country on solar energy.” And if they run into any flooding or power outages on their route through Kansas, Missouri, Colorado, Utah and Nevada, well, they’ve got prior experience.
Solar charging for EVs is on quite a roll lately. I wrote about the railroad station near my home with 27 kilowatts of PV on its roof and charging for up to 20 cars. General Motors and Envision Solar recently launched a “PV + EV” initiative, and a Cadillac/Buick/GMC dealer in Fremont, California will have a Solar Tree capable of generating 33,000 kilowatt-hours annually by early in 2013. It can charge six EVs daily, which is only about half the capacity I saw demonstrated by GE at its massive solar canopy installation in Plainville, Connecticut.

GM and Envision Solar are collaborating on plugging in Volts. (GM photo)
GM and Envision Solar are collaborating on plugging in Volts. (GM photo)

Click here to see why solar EV charging is better for your health (and the environment).

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