3,200 miles, powered by the sun

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Bike enthusiast Rob van Haaren and avid snowboarder Garret Fitzgerald–two doctoral students at the School of engineering and Applied Science at Columbia University, had long planned to celebrate the completion of their PhD with a big trip, but not until Rob heard about new flexible and portable solar panels, was Solar Journey USA born. The two engineers plan to drive cross country this summer on the power of the sun.  The two adventurers have a lot in common, but their shared tendency to push the limits and belief in the power of science have been integral to making their whimsical idea a reality.

For the past 2 years the team has conducted a weekly workshop at The Bronx Design and Construction Academy on sustainable and renewable energy sources that the majority of Americans know little about. In a study done by Accenture only 30 percent of participants regard their understanding of (PH)EVs as ‘enough’ to consider electric cars when making a decision on their next car purchase.  In addition to it being “a fun and exciting opportunity” to learn how to relate to High School freshman, according to Garrett, working with that age group has also prepared them for the educational portion of Solar Journey.  During the road trip, while the solar panels soak up powerful rays, the team plans to visit local High Schools across America and present on their research.  They aim to inform and inspire young students about the possibilities through science and creativity.

On sunny days Garrett and Rob could be regularly seen in the middle of Columbia’s Morningside campus with their solar panels laid out, talking to everyone and anyone about solar energy, their research and their trip across America.  To demonstrate the power and convenience of the world’s first energy source, Rob and Garrett hooked their laptop, cellphone charger and music speakers up to the solar panels. In our interview, Garrett recounted how, “it was very regarding to see the excitement and interest that evolves from these small scale demonstrations, and it gave a glimpse of what we will experience during our trip across the country.  However, besides having a sound system we will have an electric car and our PV array will be much, much bigger. Both of us were fantasizing about the crowds we will attract with all of that laid out.”

The main objective of their Solar Journey USA is to advocate for electric vehicle and solar power by showing the world how it can be integrated into people’s daily lives.  The team shared their amazement with me about the incredible support and excitement Solar Journey USA has generated.  They’ve found that, regardless of political orientation and economic status, the inherent good of sustainable energy is pretty obvious to everyone, most people either need more information or need to know their resources are being used wisely.  As Rob recounts, “One time, I met a Dutch-American couple during a transatlantic flight who kindly donated $50!” The Team is also currently sponsored by First Solar,  Global Environment Fund, Earth Engineering Center (EEC),  Ascent Solar and have received generous donations from other anonymous parties.

To learn more, swing by the team’s website and help us eclipse the energy conventions of the past!