Bill Bill Carlsen, a professor of Environmental Education at Penn State University and the innovator behind the world’s first sustainably powered boat trip around America’s “great loop,” believes that the synergy between solar power and electric vehicles is a “no brainer.”

In fact, he says that, “90 percent of all auto traffic could be handled with plug-in hybrid vehicles, and it would be much cheaper.”

Carlsen also notes that any ordinary person can easily figure out how to use the power of the sun. For example, using hardware store parts, he has installed the solar panels, tracking, and motor controls of his boat, the Dragonfly.

Not only do he and his wife use solar energy to power their boat, but they also use solar batteries to power house devices such as lights and computers when they are anchored in distant places.

Carlsen says that most people who stay in marinas use a power chord to plug into shore power. However, he and his wife are able to enjoy all the comforts of home by using solar power.

solar-boat-sunsetThe Solar Slow Boat
This unique boat runs on 60 percent electric power with 60 percent of its miles running on diesel. When the boat must go faster, it runs on diesel power. Carlsen starts the diesel engine under two conditions: the first is if higher speeds are necessary to get from a one safe spot to another; the second is if weather and water conditions require more horsepower.

Carlsen notes that when running the Solar Slow Boat on the Erie Canal, it was safe to run on electric power the whole time, whereas on the Mississippi River, a very busy, commercial river with no place to anchor, it was not safe to run at such a slow speed. So he had to run the boat partially on diesel power.

Carlsen adds that he also has no choice but to run the diesel engine when he and his wife must traverse 7-foot tides in waters with other big ships.

He has managed to install a 12-volt house electrical system on his unique solar canal boat that, with a transformer, connects to the boat’s 48-volt electric propulsion system. This creates a huge propulsion battery bank, which functions just like a generator, but by using renewable energy.

Carlsen admits that installing the solar/diesel hybrid system was challenging, but also says that “it’s not rocket science.”

“Any reasonably educated person, even without much technical experience, can figure out how to do these types of things themselves if they are willing to take the time,” he explains.

Solar-charged driving: a simple solution
When it comes to fuel and transportation, modern society’s fixation with speed is something we need to concentrate on, according to the Penn State professor.

“What has really driven home to us is that so much of our energy needs are based on the speed of our lives,” he notes. “When we need to go somewhere fast, we must consume a lot of energy. Part of figuring out how to make transportation technology more sustainable is how we can make it slower.”

Carlsen says that with all the tax incentives from the government that electric vehicles and solar power are more affordable than ever, and will be profitable in the long run.

He also notes that most people drive big gas-guzzling vehicles because “they want the ability to drive 400 miles” when in reality the vast majority of our driving is going back and forth to work and the grocery store.

When we need to go somewhere fast, we must consume a lot of energy. Part of figuring out how to make transportation technology more sustainable is how we can make it slower.
–Bill Carlsen, Penn State University Professor & Builder of the Solar Slow Boat

Carlsen says that he and his wife are able to keep their plug-in hybrid vehicle charged most of the time by using solar power from the roof of their home in Northern Pennsylvania. This is proof that most houses are capable of producing sufficient solar power to charge plug-in electrics, he adds.

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Using solar power to charge slower moving vehicles, like boats and large freight trucks, makes even more sense, he suggests.

Carlsen notes that so much of our energy economy is based on big corporations making money. A local, distributive energy model would undermine this big money model, he says, while also helping people to become more self-sufficient by using nature’s energy.

“We must get democratic about it. It is the citizen’s responsibility to produce the energy we use,” he says.

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