March 9, 2009
First published in Common Ground Magazine
It seats two and has a top speed of 90 kilometres an hour. When it arrived in Vancouver in early July, driven by a young Swiss adventurer and explorer of the future called Louis Palmer, who I’ll come to in a while, it had been driven 32,000 kilometres around the world, without using a drop of gas.
What does it run on? Pure sunshine, delivered free of charge to a small trailer with six square metres of photovoltaic cells. Louis calls it his “solar taxi” because he takes so many people for rides. It has turned heads wherever it goes and it has travelled from Europe to Saudi Arabia and to India, Bali (for the global climate conference), New Zealand, Australia (across the Nullarbor Plain), Singapore, Korea, China and to Vancouver. What does it cost? The car was custom-made so it’s impossible to tell, but similar, small electric vehicles sell for under $20,000.
And the running cost? If it were a regular car, burning 10 litres per 100 kilometres (28 miles per gallon in Canada), with gas at $1.50 a litre, the fuel would have cost $4,800 for the 32,000 km.
However, because it is a solar car, we need a different kind of calculation. Please don’t stop reading if you don’t like math; these are the new calculations we need to get used to.
The car uses 8 kilowatt-hours of electricity (kWh) per 100 km – we use the capital W because the Watt is named after James Watt, the Scottish inventor of the modern steam engine. If you took the power from BC Hydro, at 6.5 cents per kWh, it would cost you $165, or $1 for every 194 kilometres.
Get used to the shock. That’s what a lightweight electric vehicle costs to run. An average annual driving distance of 15,000 km would cost you $78 or $1.50 a week – less if you reduce your driving by using a bike or bus.
This is a solar car, however, so we need some additional math. The car’s trailer carries an 850 Watt solar system. You can buy an installed 1,000 Watt system for $8,000, so 850 Watts will cost you $6,800. The solar cells will produce power for 35 years or more, but they’re guaranteed for 25 years so we’ll use that number. If you pay for it on a six percent 25-year mortgage, your monthly payment will be $44 or $1.45 a day; that’s 3.5 cents per kilometre. That is the price of driving a small, solar electric car. Welcome to the future. And while the price of gas will rise every month as the world’s oil supply disappears, the price of solar will fall, due to mass production and increases in solar efficiency.
Pessimists and cynics of the world hide your heads. This is a car that runs on sunshine, and the sun is good for another five billion years, whereas the oil – that stored ancient sunshine from long, long ago – will be gone in 31 years. An estimated 1,000 billion barrels remain and we’re using 32 billion barrels a year. Ah, but Brazil has just discovered a “huge” oil field, with 33 billion barrels so make that 32 years.
But what about its range? When the sun is shining, Louis’s car has a range of 400 kilometres before he has to stop and recharge it. On a cloudy day, make that 300 km. Take away the solar trailer and its range is 200 km from its battery. So if your car is powered from a solar system on your roof, instead of the trailer, your range is 200 km.
While that’s not good for longer trips, it’s fine for 90 percent of the trips we make on a regular basis, and with battery technology so hot right now, every car maker on the planet is chasing the Holy Grail of a better battery. For longer trips, we’ll be using the plug-in hybrid electric vehicles arriving in 2010 from Toyota, GM and Ford, which can run on gas (or biogas from sewage) for longer distances.
What about winter, when the sun’s hiding away? You just plug it into the grid. If, just theoretically, every one of BC’s 2.3 million cars were a lightweight, electric car like the solar taxi, using 1200 kWh a year to travel 15,000 km, we’d need to generate an additional 2,760 gigawatt hours of electricity a year. That’s a 4.6 percent increase in the power we use today in this province. Even if we triple the number to allow for larger cars, it’s still only a 15 percent increase; we could produce that much power just by making our homes and businesses more efficient.
So what about Louis Palmer, the man who set these thoughts in motion? When he was a child, he dreamed of escaping Switzerland’s mountains and driving around the world. Then his teacher taught him about the dangers of global warming and he had to abandon the idea.
When he was 14, however, he sketched the idea of a solar car and the seed was sown. Later, when he became a teacher, during the school holidays, he became a global adventurer. In 1994, he toured Africa on a bike and in 1996 he flew by ultra-light across the USA. He has also worked as a travel guide and aid worker in Afghanistan and cycled through South America. Everywhere he went, people said, “The weather has changed. It didn’t used to be like this.” For Louis – and all of us –global warming is a serious threat.
Louis is not an engineer so in order to make his solar taxi he first went to a battery company, which offered him the batteries. He then approached local colleges, where engineering students offered to design the car. Later, he went to a machine company, where they offered to assemble it. At the time of writing (mid-July), he is driving down the west coast of America. When he’s crossed America, he will ship the solar taxi to Morocco and drive back through Europe, ending his journey at the World Climate Conference in Poznan, Poland, in December. Follow Louis’s journey at www.solartaxi.com
The moral of this story is that you don’t have to be a genius to invent the future and help save the world. You just need to believe in your dreams and when it comes to the details, ask other people for help.
Speaking of heroes, Vancouver’s Matt Hill and Stephanie Tait, who are running daily marathons in their Run for One Planet to raise awareness about climate change and funds for future eco-initiatives, have reached Ontario and are closing in on Toronto. To follow their amazing journey, see www.runforoneplanet.com. If you want to learn about electric vehicles, visit the Vancouver Electric Vehicle Association at www.veva.bc.ca