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Solar Transportation

Zipping along at a top speed of less than 35 miles per hour, solar-electric-powered golf or work carts are helping park and recreation departments save money while reducing their carbon footprint. The carts--using a cross between solar and electric power--serve almost every purpose as those of gas-powered carts, including for golfers, food and beverage, maintenance crews, security vehicles, housekeeping, transportation and even emergencies. That last item might sound somewhat contradictory (Who wants to travel to the emergency room in a vehicle that is considered low-speed?). But a solar-electric emergency vehicle fitted with foam tires is able to reach otherwise “inaccessible” locations in disaster situations while its heavier cousins have to wait for debris to be cleared.

Benefits Of Sun Suckers

A solar-electric cart can be recharged merely by parking it in a sunny spot for a day. “With our solar tops, solar-electric vehicles can run between five and ten miles on just the energy collected from the sun,” says Mary Anne Bowie, sustainability leader for EcoTrans Alliance, a source for renewable solar-energy transportation and management solutions. “This can allow for people to have a zero carbon footprint.”

Solar panels reduce the draw-down on a battery by constantly charging it (at least on sunny days). In the process, the battery life increases from an average of 2.5 years to 3.3 years. “Solar panels reduce operating costs,” says Bowie. “With a solar panel, you can drive about 1,825 miles a year for free, if you are driving five miles per day. This equals a savings of $275 per year on gasoline, based on $3 per gallon and 20 miles per gallon.” With a plug-in electric vehicle, the solar savings can be about $25 to $35 per year in base electric fees; the figure doesn’t include fuel charges.

Solar Money Saver

You can purchase a solar-electric golf cart or amend existing electric golf and work carts to include solar-photovoltaic panels, which charge the deep-cycle battery. If the existing battery is in good condition, there is no need to purchase a new one. Electric carts are usually equipped with a 36- or 48-volt battery. To best charge the battery, the equivalent voltage in panels can be mounted in a steel frame on the canopy of the cart.

Since canopy space is usually limited, creative solutions are needed to meet the voltage requirements. As a result, three 12-volt panels are connected in a series for a total of 36 volts, or four 12-volt panels are connected in a series for 48 volts. To prevent the battery from becoming overcharged, a charge controller is located between the solar panels and the battery.

Typically, the cost of conversion ranges between $250 and $1,000, depending on the voltage needed. The conversion takes one to two hours, depending on the skill level of the installer. “It can be installed either by a dealership or by the owner of the vehicle. It is a fairly simple install,” says Bowie.

But how far will those solar panels take you down the road? “You can’t drive the cart forever because you are not putting energy into the battery at the same rate you are taking it out,” says John Ervin, product solutions specialist with Solar Direct, an alternative-energy company. “The more hours you run it per day, the more time you are going to need to spend recharging the batteries.”

Street Legal

Speaking of driving, what if you need to go from one location to another using city or county roads? The cart can be converted to become street-legal. Low-speed vehicles can travel at 35 miles per hour or less if outfitted with specific safety features, such as lights, seatbelts, mirrors and warning signs. Before heading out on the open road, be sure you are complying with state and local regulations.

For those who are stuck in the tour-bus rut, consider a solar-electric vehicle that can transport eight to 22 passengers. “Solar-electric trolleys have been tried and tested at resorts for years,” says Bowie. “We are taking that transportation into parks, neighborhoods and downtowns for tourism and resident transportation.”

Follow The Lead

With more branches of government and communities looking to be considered green role models, there are plenty of places for inspiration. In April 2009, the Cincinnati Park Foundation rolled out a solar work cart built by a team of college students from Cincinnati State, who were mentoring high-school students from Clark Montessori. The project was sponsored by a grant from Time Warner.

“We see future uses for the solar cart, such as the litter-pickup route through the park, and staging materials in planting garden beds,” says Jennifer Harten, the region manager at Cincinnati Park Board’s Ault Park.

Jefferson Patterson Park & Museum in St. Leonard, Md., purchased a solar-electric hybrid 14-passenger vehicle. “It looks like an extended golf cart, but drives like a manual-shift vehicle,” says Megan Williams, marketing and events coordinator with Jefferson. “We use the cart to conduct tours and kids camp, and to demonstrate our efforts to be greener and more environmentally friendly.”

Since obtaining the cart last year, the staff has only needed to plug it in twice. “We have a lot of full-day events lasting eight hours, and we are transporting people the entire time, and the cart recharges itself throughout the day,” says Williams. “It can go over 25 miles per hour, and is very quiet, so it is easy for people to hear the tour guide.”

Solar Futures

Industry leaders expect to see more street-legal solar-electric carts, and for communities to offer preferred routes for low-speed vehicles. As demand increases, communities across the nation are gearing up to go electric, and to use solar energy as an electric provider.

Project Get Ready, a non-profit initiative led by the Rocky Mountain Institute, in conjunction with a wide array of partners and technical advisers, is a clearinghouse for communities thinking of going electric. Projectgetready.org includes a database of communities going electric as well as technical support.

Before You Fork Over Your Solar Dollar

Before running out and purchasing solar-conversion kits for your carts, take a closer look at who is providing the equipment. “All the big producers will have a 10- to 25-year warranty on the panels,” says Ervin, “and a 5-year warranty on the charge controllers.” Industry leaders advise purchasing solar-energy components directly from the manufacturer rather than from a reseller. Select a solar company that has a long-standing reputation in the solar market, and is a member of the Solar Energies Industries Association.

Tammy York is the owner of LandShark Communications LLC, which specializes in media and public relations for outdoor recreation businesses. Her book, 60 Hikes Within 60 Miles: Cincinnati, is available online and in bookstores. You can reach her at landsharkpr@yahoo.com.

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