A solar-powered road trip across America

solar-journ-garret-rob2A cross-country road trip is virtually every American university student’s dream.

Usually, the dream is to zip across America in a car, maybe on a motorcycle, or, if you’re a little bit more adventurous and hardy, on a bicycle.

But in a solar-charged car?

You’ve got to be kidding!

Not if you’re Garrett Fitzgerald and Rob Van Haaren.

The two Columbia University doctoral students plan to drive an electric car 3,200 miles from New York City to San Francisco next summer – and they’re going to power it with 100-percent American “grown” solar.


No solar offset
No dealing with solar-offset electricity for this technologically inclined and talented duo either — both Fitzgerald and van Haaren are earth and environmental engineering graduate students at Columbia.

The Columbia University pair is going to bring a portable solar array complete with extra battery storage with them so that they can say that, yes, each and every one of the 3,200 plus miles they cover in an EV will have been directly fueled by sun electricity.

“To our knowledge, a trip like this where we won’t be using any offset electricity hasn’t been done before,” says Fitzgerald.

“We will be completely autonomous in terms of where the electricity comes from – we will never be plugging into the electric grid,” adds Van Haaren.

The goal: To show the viability of the renewable energy + electric vehicle synergy to people in the U.S.

“We want to foster awareness and to offer education outreach programs that show average Americans that solar energy can be utilized for various things — one of those being driving across the country,” Fitzgerald explains.

Education a primary goal
Fitzgerald and Van Haaren plan on making multiple educational stops along the journey.

“We’ll stop by major cities and universities,” says Fitzgerald, “and we’ll have demonstrations and talks about renewable energy technologies, which is something we both have a passion for.”

The trip – which has a web site devoted to it called Solar Journey USA – and its goals of educating the American public about the potentials of solar energy grows out of an epiphany van Haaren had last September.

Van Haaren, who is originally from The Netherlands, explains:

“Garrett had a plan to drive across America with conventional motorcycles. I came up with idea to do it with solar and electric motorcycles. But then we thought it would be better to it with a car. Most people can connect better with a car than they can with a motorcycle.”

Conventional production EV
Fitzgerald and Van Haaren won’t be forcing themselves into the cramped cockpit of a tiny, MIT solar-powered vehicle style car: They plan on zooming across America in a full-bodied EV such as a Tesla Roadster or a Nissan LEAF.

Their as-yet-to-be determined EV – the two are still working on procuring a Roadster, LEAF or similar electric car for the trip – will be plugged directly into a portable 7 kW customized solar array constructed out of extra-thin, lightweight solar materials built by Colorado-based Ascent Solar.

We want to foster awareness and to offer education outreach programs that show average Americans that solar energy can be utilized for various things — one of those being driving across the country.
–Garrett Fitzgerald, Co-Founder, Solar Journey USA

In an effort to keep the weight of their solar power trailer unit down and to increase the its efficiency, Fitzgerald and van Haaren hope to construct a customized system that feeds the DC electricity generated by the solar array directly into the EV’s batteries.

If successful, such a move would circumvent the need to convert the DC energy generated by the array into AC and then back into DC.

“We’re trying to stay away from energy conversions. In this way, we’re trying to maximize our energy yield from the system,” notes Van Haaren, who adds that he and Fitzgerald have been in contact with engineers at Tesla to talk about how such a system might be constructed.


Power up during day, drive at night
Fitzgerald and Van Haaren plan to do much of their driving in the evening and into the night so that they can use peak sunlight hours to charge their EV using their unique, roll-able portable solar system (see accompanying graphics).

Practical considerations aren’t the only reason they plan to do most of their 200 miles of daily driving (some of this will come from the extra batteries the duo plans to pull behind them) in the evening and at night: The Columbia University pair want to use the daytime to show the public how solar-powered EV charging works and to educate people about the benefits of combining solar power and electric vehicles.

“We want to maximize hitting large cities and universities,” explains Fitzgerald, who notes that one of the biggest challenges of planning the trip will be allowing some room for flexibility in arrival times as the pair will be directly dependent on an intermittent energy source – the sun – to get to where they are going.

Once they arrive at a planned stop, Fitzgerald and van Haaren plan to go full throttle to draw attention to themselves as well as their unique portable solar + electric car combination — by spreading out their roll-able solar array in a prominent place and adding a key ingredient: music.


In 15 or 20 years, we’ll be looking back at all of our wasteful moments and saying, ‘My gosh, weren’t we stupid!’ People are wasting so much energy and resources that we can only use once.
— Rob Van Haaren, Co-Founder, Solar Journey USA

Emissions-free music
In fact, Fitzgerald and van Haaren are already educating fellow students at Columbia about solar by cranking solar-powered music on campus.

“We’ve mostly played electronic music from Europe and Reggae,” notes Fitzgerald. “Reggae reminds me of the sun and beach – and it seems to get the most attention out of people.”

“We bring the system out on campus, play some loud, emissions-free music, and it attracts attention,” adds Van Haaren. “People get interested. Most people don’t have an accurate perception of solar panels; they haven’t really seen a PV system. It’s really exciting to see how interested people get.”

The aim of the solar-powered, emissions-free music sessions and of the cross-country solar-charged driving trip isn’t just to educate people about solar and electric vehicles. Fitzgerald and van Haaren also want to draw attention to something most people rarely make note of: How much electricity and energy are needed to run the modern devices we take for granted, from stereos to automobiles.

“It’s about getting people to understand where power comes from,” explains Fitzgerald.

“People don’t realize how much power cars use,” adds Van Haaren. “You use a hundred more times energy to drive a car for an hour than you use to power your home with electricity for that same amount of time.”

Solar-charged driving is the future
Fitzgerald and van Haaren are optimistic that their cross-country trip will open people’s eyes to the potential of the electric car + renewable energy synergy. However, they don’t necessarily expect to see millions of people driving around pulling a portable solar system behind electric cars anytime soon.

“I don’t think it will become commonplace in the manner that we’re doing it, carrying our solar with us,” says Fitzgerald. “I do think that it will become very common that, as a society, we’re using solar and wind-based energy to charge our EVs.”

Van Haaren says the vast parking lots of America provide great potential to grow the EV + PV connection.

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“Parking spots and solar arrays above them that can charge an EV while you go shopping or work, I think that’s a development you are going to see more and more,” Van Haaren predicts.“I think that’s when people will feel more connected to solar power and to solar-charged driving — when there are more and more parking spots with solar power.”

While the renewable energy + EV mix is crucial to building a better, greener, cleaner, more efficient world us all, the larger motivation for Fitzgerald and Van Haaren is a more sustainable way of life for Americans.

“People are not aware of how many resources we are using,” notes Van Haaren. “In 15 or 20 years, we’ll be looking back at all of our wasteful moments and saying, ‘My gosh, weren’t we stupid!’ People are wasting so much energy and resources that we can only use once – and they’re stealing from future generations.”

solar-journ-graphic-topFor more information on Garrett Fitzgerald’s and Rob Van Haaren’s upcoming solar-charged trip across America, go to SolarJourneyUSA.Com.

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