Adventurer makes history with solar-powered joy ride

Sept. 6, 2008 More than a year after he set off from the European Sustainable Energy Forum in Lucerne, Switzerland, 36-year-old Palmer is on track to become the first person ever to travel around the world in a car without a drop of gas -- proving, he says, that free fuel for life is not a fantasy of the future.

"I am on a mission to teach people that we already have the solutions we need to make a better world," Palmer told this week.

The brightly painted two-seater, about the size of a go-cart, was first conceived when Palmer was 14 years old. Twenty-two years later, the bright lines of his colored pencils have come to life as a joint venture between four Swiss universities. The project took three years and grew to include more than 200 students.

Palmer says he decided to give up the two hours he spent watching television each day and use the time to recruit sponsorship for his project. In the end, it was two German, not Swiss, companies that provided Palmer with what he calls "the heart and soul" of the vehicle.

The German company Q-Cells agreed to provide the solar panel trailer, worth more than $5,000. On a sunny day, these panels provide around 60 miles of power. Zebra Battery provided the two 250-pound recyclable batteries, worth $15,000 dollars each, which store combined energy from the solar panels and the regular electric power outlets Palmer plugs into each night.

In total, the car can go 200 miles without recharging.

Upon his arrival at George Washington University Law School, in Washington, D.C., Wednesday, Palmer and his crew of three had driven 27,000 miles, visiting 28 countries and hundreds of cities. At each stop, Palmer seeks out audiences to make his case with a 45-minute Power Point presentation.

"I cannot change the world by myself," Palmer said. "But I can spread the word and the message that we can stop global warming and be independent of fossil fuels."

But how soon the full transition from biofuels to more sustainable forms of energy can be made remains up for debate.

Palmer admits his solar car is not designed for mass production, but he maintains that a similar and safer model could be mass-produced for around $10,000, not including the solar panels.

Sustainable energy experts in the United States seem to agree the solution to the global energy crisis will be largely powered by the sun and the wind.

"You can drill all you want, but that's not really going to be an option down the road," said Ken Zweidel, director of the Institute of Analysis for Solar Energy. "The solution is to electrify transportation."

Zweidel says what Palmer is doing demonstrates solar power is a viable alternative to biofuel, but that in the future the location of the solar panels will not be on a trailer behind the car, but rather in large solar fields or on rooftops.

"Solar energy just isn't realistic in small sizes," he said. "You need large areas to make it economically sound."

The challenge and the solution remain in achieving economies of scale.

Energy that comes from coal costs about 6 cents for a kilowatt hour, which is enough electricity to run a hair dryer for an hour, according to the Emerging Energy Research. Natural gas costs about 9 cents a kilowatt hour.

While solar energy is currently the most expensive, averaging about 20 cents per kilowatt hour, biting the bullet and investing in solar will likely prove significantly less expensive over time.

"The idea is essentially being able to fill up your gas tank for free," said Neal Lurie, director of marketing for the American Solar Energy Society. "Solar energy has the potential. We just need to create the culture."

Renewable energy already generates 8.5 million jobs in the United States, according to the National Green Collar Job Study, and with coal and electricity prices rising, the dawn of a solar- and wind-powered world may not be as far off as once thought.

"The cost [of solar power] drops about 5 percent a year as production and volume go up," he said. "I think there is going to be a tipping point in the next 18 months."

Palmer's solar-powered globe trot, however, will likely draw to a close before any sort of tipping point is reached. Palmer plans on stopping by the World Climate Change Conference in Poland before heading home in December to celebrate his epic, record-setting journey around the world.

But don't count on this Swiss pioneer to remain in park.

Palmer is already planning an 80-day, solar-powered race around the world, scheduled for some time next year.

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