Green Transportation
Moving toward a transportation system that fuels healthy people and a healthy planet.

The Chevy Volt: The Belt and Suspenders of the Automotive World

In this guest series, former hot-rodder and mechanical engineer David Borden offers advice for first-time electric-vehicle drivers by reviewing the 2017 Chevy Volt Premier. Watch the Green Transportation Blog for David’s additional notes.

In keeping with my cautious and frugal Yankee heritage and senior status, I am slowly transitioning to a single car. As an interim step, I bought a 2017 Chevrolet Volt Premier with two optional safety and convenience packages, and these are my initial impressions.

I would have liked to have made the change directly to a single fully-electric vehicle, but the limited number of charging stations available today, and the time required to recharge, meant compromises were in order. The majority of my trips are urban short-haul in nature, but I still need the occasional run across several states to visit friends and family, so jumping to total electric power was not prudent. I needed range which was not limited by the current availability of plug-in recharging stations.

The Volt met that criterion: As long as the propulsion battery is charged, it will function as an electric car — for a guaranteed 53 miles — and then transition to a gasoline-powered hybrid, using the propulsion battery as an energy buffer. With that capability, range is extended by several hundred miles and only limited by the availability of gasoline, hence the Chevrolet name for the IC Engine, “Range Extender”.

Advice for First-Time Electric Vehicle Drivers

If you haven’t driven an Electric Vehicle (EV) before, it is a new experience. Different, but similar enough so that transition from a “normal” car is easy. There is no key; slip the fob provided into your pocket, slide behind the wheel, buckle up, and “boot-up” the computer …

Wait, wait, come back! No need to be scared of it, because the command is transmitted through a normal-looking, large, blue button on the dash labeled “Power” — a starter button just like Grandad had in his 1950 Ford. Push the button (with your foot on the brake), and both screens flash and all manner of icons illuminate as the computer awakens and checks the car’s systems for correct function.

The screen in front of the driver is circular, reminiscent of every analog speedometer we’ve ever viewed, and has two large arc gauges displaying fuel levels and digital readouts of estimated range remaining. Speed is displayed digitally. This pod also displays alerts affecting safe operation and is directly in front of the driver; it comes easily to eye while driving. The large centered screen to the right answers to commands and displays “nice to have” information and the rear-view TV image.

The point is that modern cars, like our driving environment, need to be and are necessarily complex. Small process control computers integrated into the auto now help us master modern driving.

Keeping Volt Batteries Charged and Issues of Range

I use the supplied 110VAC Charger to keep the propulsion batteries charged.  It is a simple matter to pull into my parking spot and plug-in, letting the vehicle charge overnight or until the next time it is used. The on-board computer controls the charging cycle, and no other input or action is required. (I don’t know if keeping the batteries continually “topped-off” has a beneficial effect, or if the computer considers my typical driving cycle and weather, but as of late the charged range estimate shown on the instrument panel is between 68 and 70 miles! Actual use tends to confirm this.)

For the first 1,000 miles, I have driven predominantly on the stored battery power — I have only needed the Range Extender twice, and I have used less than a gallon of gas. Repeat: Less than a gallon of gas in the first 1000 miles! (I anticipate receiving “Get Well Soon, Dave” cards from Texas and Saudi Arabia!)

When the propulsion batteries are drawn down to a pre-determined level, the Range Extender fires up automatically, and will propel the car until all gasoline is used.  Since there are gasoline stations available on most corners, there is no such thing as the oft cited and feared, “Range Anxiety” with this car.

All design involves compromise, and cars are a great example of the various trade-offs that are required to produce a marketable product. The choices Chevrolet has made for the Volt are excellent. There are a whole series of excellent videos on YouTube made by Chevrolet Engineers, which go into great detail about the power plants (there are two) and transmission wizardry, and the tremendous technology we as customers are getting. Accepted.

But, my analogy is, “If I’m buying an axe, do I really care about where the shaft wood was grown, and how they forged the head”? No, what I care about is how it works, and this car works well. Some may think that’s lazy, but I depend upon market forces in this emerging market segment to drive the technology. True competition is a lovely thing for us consumers!

Chevy Volt’s ground clearance

Notes on Volt Body Design

The first compromise is in the shape of the car. For efficiency, today’s cars must pass through the air easily, which results in the “Melted Lozenge” designs which characterize modern automobiles. Smooth, aerodynamic lines with heavy wind-tunnel influence — the ideal shapes that every fifth-grade boy intuitively knew were correct and filled his copy books with.

The front, a bullet nose flattened and shaped to enter still air smoothly and guide it around, under, and over the car. The rear, faired to pass the air on with minimal effort and truncated in a flat surface as dictated by Dr. Kamm.

Windshield and rear window glass heavily sloped to cut aero losses and sealed flat with the surrounding bodywork. A four-door because the market segment the car is aimed at are families, and it has a hatch back and foldable rear seats for access and utility, again to meet a family’s needs. Sounds great — until we get to the compromises.

Design Not Without Compromise

First, you are now sitting deep in an enveloping structure. Safe, secure, womb-like, but the old ideal of seeing all four fenders from the driver’s seat is only a hazy memory in this car. Chevrolet apparently recognized this shortcoming and has utilized emerging technology (from autonomous car development?) to help the driver.

For 30-plus years, engineers have been using computers to optimize engine performance, sampling variables and using on-board control to limit fuel consumption and maximize horsepower. Now, this car’s computer also supplements the driver’s field of vision with a series of sensors around the waist of the car intended to warn the driver of objects that are too close, fore and aft. It warns of cross traffic, overtaking vehicles and idiots lurking in your blind spots.

And, to help with a reduced rear view, the car has a TV system which displays guide lines on the central screen indicating distance to objects and field of travel. The wizardry includes “Path of Travel” adjustments to the guide lines — while in reverse gear, turns to the steering wheel bend and curve the guide lines on the TV to indicate course of travel. Neat solution and confidence building.

The platform is stiff and rigid, giving a road feel much like much heavier luxury cars of the past. Kudos to those who designed the unibody structure and worked out the joining techniques; the car plays well above its weight class.

There are costs to obtaining that stiffness: The side sill step-over is wide, and the rear hatch lift-over height is very high. Upon reflection, both are acceptable. The sill width is easily made familiar, and the rear hatch lip is no higher than an average shopping cart; most grocery shoppers won’t be troubled by the height.

The doors shut with a satisfying “thunk”, which I associate with luxury cars costing much more than this. I think Harley Earl and the boys at Fisher Body would approve of the quality feel. Similarly, the application of power is smooth and continuous, and I’m sure the GM designers who labored long and hard to design and build smooth automatic transmissions — the fellows who developed “Hydramatic”, “Dynaflow”, and “Powerglide” — were they to come back and drive this car would all say, “Yeah, that’s the stuff”.  A nod also to those responsible for the Front Wheel Drive Geometry. The car has a very tight turning radius, and displays no “torque steer” under acceleration.

Door weight may be due to side beams — the car is highly rated by independent testing labs in collision tests. It’s rated a safe car. By my count, there are no less than nine airbags within the cabin, which is a very good thing. But it comes with a cost: The space above the two front doors where once there would have been an assist handle is now occupied by an airbag. I have enough personal frame impairments to miss having the handle and find myself reaching up onto the roof and grabbing the drain channel to aid egress.  (Can’t help but wonder how I’ll fare come the first snowfalls.)

Also, my same physical problems require a modified entry method: I back up to the car’s door opening, bend forward and sit on the seat, bring my frame erect within the cabin, then turn, swinging my legs into the car. Until I got used to the low door opening height, I bumped my head on the frame — and I still do occasionally.

It must be noted that the “B” pillar immediately behind the driver is substantial, and looks to give great roof support. Gone are the days of structurally weak, four-door hardtops without a “B” pillar! Good riddance! I would expect this car to perform well in side-impact and rollover testing, and real-life situations.

The rear seats fold down in what looks to be a 60/40 split, and the hatch opens wide, increasing the usefulness of the car. It is obviously not a light truck or a 1970s station wagon capable of carrying sheets of plywood, but it handles modest items and sacks of groceries, feed and fertilizer quite nicely. We found that with the rear seats upright the trunk accepted a notoriously bulky item, a folding Travel Wheel Chair, easily.

There is a side panel cubby for charger storage, and the car came with a fabric luggage cover to hide trunk contents. The hatch has a convenient hand grab to allow it to be easily closed and has pneumatic assist cylinders for easy opening.

Stay tuned in about one week for additional notes in Part 2.

Dave Borden is a reformed hot-rodder with an abiding interest in things mechanical and “Green”. He has been a “Mother’s Lifer” for 40 years. He was trained as a mechanical engineer, but never let that restrict his curiosity, enjoying careers in turboshaft engine design and development, before acquiring his MBA and working in small business consulting and mortgage banking.  His hobby has been construction for many years, and he lives on Boston’s North Shore with his wife of 50 years and a dedicated Dachshund in a south-facing house he built with the help of many excellent friends.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

Solar Electric VW Bus: Phase 2

Good Clean Fun!

First, I must apologize for not blogging sooner….  I have been deep in fabrication of phase two of the solar electric VW bus.  Phase two for those just tuning in, includes replacing a lead acid battery bank with LiFePo batteries of much great capacity for extended range.  Also, phase two includes the addition of more solar power to gather more charging sunlight. Unfortunately, I did not have time to run a crowd funding campaign and was forced to come up with the money myself to procure phase two.  But...

The show must go on!

Currently I am fitting 192 Calb Cam72 Lithium Iron Phosphate batteries.   These batteries will increase my storage capacity by almost 4 times and reduce weight by 200lbs!  Taking it easy with the 10kw-hr lead pack, I could go 50 miles.   Now with 44kw-hr of storage and 200 less pounds compared to my lead pack, I will be inching towards the 200 mile range mark.  I go slow.  50 mph is where the wind resistance starts to really deplete energy.  Also the bus is a 1973 and going much more than 60 feels a little hectic anyway.  It is an RV and for me and my family slowing down and connecting with nature is our aim.

Lithium Iron Phosphate Batteries Are Different than Other Lithium Batteries

Lithium Iron Phosphate based technology possesses superior thermal and chemical stability which provides better safety characteristics than those of Lithium-ion technology made with other cathode materials. Lithium phosphate cells are incombustible in the event of mishandling during charge or discharge, they are more stable under overcharge or short circuit conditions and they can withstand high temperatures without decomposing. When abuse does occur, the phosphate based cathode material will not burn and is not prone to thermal runaway. Phosphate chemistry also offers a longer cycle life.

I could have had about 66 kw-hr of energy storage instead of just 44kw-hr for the same price weight and size.  But, the LiFePo cells last significantly longer.

My decision, however, was first about safety.  The LiFePo battery is actually much safer and more environmentally friendly than the lead acid batteries I previously used.  Without the need to vent the LiFePo pack I can use my battery box vent system now to cool the LiFePo bank.

Secondarily, the toxicity concern is also addressed.  LiFePo batteries do not contain any heavy metals such as lead, cadmium, or any other corrosive acids.

Lithium Iron Phosphates Are Definitely the Eco Choice

I used a BMS, or battery management system from Thunderstruck Motors.  I will recommend all to this on line store since it has very knowledgeable and helpful people working there.

The BMS system monitors every battery to ensure if a cell fails it is known and doesn't affect safety or harm any others cells.



More Solar Power!

I purchased 5,200 watt flexible panels from Jack Rickard of EVTV.  I will mount these in an aluminum frame.  When it's all said and done, the array will weight just under 70 lbs.  It should be quite easy to maneuver.   For a 1200 watts array using conventionally framed, glass topped solar panels, we are looking at nearly 200 lbs. 

I will have a nice, light 1000 watt awning to keep me in the shade and 2200 total watts of solar including the 1200 watts I currently have up top.


My goal is to go 200 miles and charge up in two days.  I would like to hop between national parks and other American splendor….silently and with very low impact.

Comfort, space, and clean remote energy harvest…..SAY HELLO TO FREEDOM!!!

Photos by Kira Belan

Brett Belan lived off-grid in California for a decade before he and his family moved to Ashland, Oregon. There he co-founding Apparent Energy, an engineering company dedicated to improving our electrical systems. He spends his free time building electric vehicles and converted a 1973 VW bus to a fully electric, solar powered vehicle. Find out more at: Solar-Electric VW Bus. Follow Brett on Facebook and Instagram, and read his article in Home Power magazine. Read all of Brett’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

Pair a Tesla with Solar Panels to Shrink Your Carbon Footprint


The world has been keeping a close eye on Elon Musk and his innovative "cleantech" ventures. Now that Tesla and SolarCity have combined forces, even design-conscious homeowners can pair electric cars and solar panels to wage a war against grid reliance and energy dependence. Here's how pairing your Tesla with solar panels can help shrink your carbon footprint.

How to Charge a Tesla with Solar Energy

Electric vehicles like those manufactured by Tesla can actually serve as a form of battery storage for solar energy. The process is simple:

1. Install solar on your roof to generate electricity by harnessing the power of the sun

2. Take that photovoltaic energy and use it to charge your Tesla Model S or Model 3 when your solar panels are producing more electricity than you need to power your home

That one-two punch is exactly what Elon Musk had in mind when his company moved to acquire SolarCity. Of course, this was this all possible before the Tesla-SolarCity merger – a Chevy Volt or Nissan Leaf owner didn’t need Elon Musk’s “master plan” to realize that electric cars can be paired with solar energy. However, Musk’s latest move targets the layman homeowner, extending beyond the early adopters of clean energy who paired their Leaf or Volt with home solar panels years ago.

By bringing two of the world’s leading solutions to emissions reduction under one roof, Tesla can cut operating costs in development and installation, helping homeowners to understand clean energy financing options as a combined cost rather than trying to conceptualize the headache of multiple individual energy investments. In a sense, Tesla is making clean energy simple because it needs to be simple.

Now that millions of homeowners are considering the prospect of a zero emissions home, a number of questions are arising in the renewable space. How do you connect solar panels to an electric vehicle? How long will it take for solar panels to charge a car? How many panels will you need to charge your car in the first place?

How Many kWh Does it take to Charge a Tesla Model S?

In order to understand how solar panels and Tesla vehicles complement each other, we first need to understand how electric cars are charged rather than fueled. And because solar panel systems are sized based on the expected energy usage of a household, a homeowner would need to take into account projected energy needs from his or her Tesla in order to get a solar panel system that can generate enough electricity enough to meet that combined demand.

The metric to use here is the kilowatt-hour (kWh), which represents the one unit of electricity consumed. In order to compare electric vehicles (EVs) to automobiles, the EPA uses the amount of kilowatt-hours required for an EV to travel 100 miles as a "miles per gallon equivalent" (MPGe).

According to, the 2016 Tesla Model S requires 34 kWh per every 100 miles, giving it a fuel economy rating of 98 MPGe. If the ultimate question is how many kWh you need to power your Tesla, it depends on the distance you plan to travel. A short trip 25 miles each way would require roughly 17 kWh of energy, while the energy needed to run errands around town might only require 2 or 3 kWh.

How many solar panels does it take to charge a Tesla?

Once you establish how many kWh you need to charge your Tesla, the next step is to calculate how many solar panels are required to provide that charge. Solar panel electricity production is dependent on a few different factors – to keep it simple, we’ll use an example homeowner who already has solar and is adding additional panels to supply energy for a 2016 Tesla Model S. Let’s call her Barb.

Barb has a 5 kW (5,000 watt) solar system, the average system size for the U.S. residential solar market. She lives in Cleveland, Ohio where solar is not unusually cheap or particularly expensive. In Cleveland, the average annual energy production for 5kW solar systems is 6,071 kWh.

Assuming Barb’s system uses standard 250-watt panels, we then also know that Barb’s current solar array has 20 solar panels (250 W x 20 panels = 5,000 Watts). This means that each of Barb’s panels produces just over 303 kWh of energy in a year (6,071 kWh ÷ 20 panels). Let’s think of this number as Barb’s annual energy production for a single panel.

How Much Will it Cost to Charge a Tesla with Solar Panels?

As we learned above, Barb’s new Tesla Model S has a 34kWh/100 MPGe rating. If we assume she will be driving 25 miles a day, we know that her Tesla is going to be using 8.5 kWh a day (3,103 kWh per year). Assuming each panel produces approximately 303 kWh per year, Barb will need to add roughly 10 more solar panels to her system in order to supply fuel for her new Tesla.

The next question might be “how much does it cost to charge a Tesla with solar?”, or in other words, how much extra will Barb need to pay for those 10 panels. If we assume an average price to install a 250W panel is $185, charging Barb’s brand-new Model S will likely tack on another $2,000 to her solar panel system costs.

Compare that to total money spent at the gas pump every year and we start to see why pairing a Tesla with solar panels makes sense. In the long run, Barb will see concrete energy savings on multiple fronts, and will likely break even on her solar panel investment in seven to 10 years. 

How to Find the Best Deal on Solar

If you're planning to go all in on clean energy, hopefully this breakdown helped you to envision the integration of solar and EVs. The next step towards zero emissions is to begin searching for the right EV and start comparing quotes for a solar panel system. The EnergySage Solar Marketplace allows you to compare real pricing data from homeowners in your area and review various financing options for free. For those looking for a personalized instant estimate for solar, try our Solar Calculator.

Vikram Aggarwal is the founder and chief executive of EnergySage, the online solar marketplace. EnergySage simplifies the process of researching and shopping for solar. By offering shoppers more choices and unprecedented levels of transparency, EnergySage allows consumers to select the solar installation quote that provides the best value for them, quickly and easily. Read all of Vikram's posts here.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

Choosing the Right Diesel Fuel for the Time of Year


This blog post contains sufficient information for the reader to understand the sometimes confusing world of on-road and off-road diesel fuel. Here in the high country (elevation 9,800 feet), we actually have pretty mild winters with the temperatures only falling to single digit or minus degrees a few times a year.

Troubleshooting Common Problems with Diesel Tractor Engines

Diesel gelling. We never had a problem with diesel gelling in our old tractor, but for some unexplained reason this newer one seems to have that issue. With a small tractor that is used primarily to move the snow in the winter, we need it to start when needed. We average around 264 inches of snow a season and being able to keep it clear is vital to our survival.

Diesel gel color. When diesel fuel gels, it rarely gets warm enough, nor can we make it warm enough to run the tractor. I have always treated #2 diesel with anti-gel additive, in addition to what has been in it when purchased. When the diesel gels (turns a milky white), the solution is to drain the fuel from the tank and replace both in-line fuel filters.

Small tractors have tight spaces. Small diesel tractors are not designed for someone with large hands to easily remove and replace the fuel filters. One filter is underneath the tractor, so in the winter, I lay on the frozen snow-covered ground to remove it. The other filter is on the side of the engine, so all of the heavy front-end equipment has to be removed to access it. For someone who is 6 feet 2 inches and 200 pounds, that leaves very little room to work easily in tight spaces. The manufacturer designed our tractor with the underneath fuel filter partially under an impact plate to protect from damage, so there is only 4 to 5 inches to maneuver my hands when changing the bottom filter. Then, when the filter is disconnected, fuel spews out, so I’m temporarily drenched in smelly diesel fuel. In addition, the diesel makes tools, hands, hoses, and the plastic fuel filters very slippery. It is a miserable job for a person my size.

Owner's manuals can be misleading. The owner's manual  instruction for winter use is to use #1 diesel. When I went looking for it, I found that because this grade of diesel has high sulfur content, it is not allowed to be sold commercially by providers. After about the 4th time of having to change fuel filters and drain the fuel tank, I inquired of the dealer if there was something that I did not know or wasn’t being told. I buy my diesel at a station that sells large amounts of fuel; however, it still gels even with subsequent liberal anti-gel treatment. I’m repeatedly told to just use more anti-gel or get fresh fuel which has not worked.

Searching for good advice. In desperation, I called a local diesel mechanic who advised me I need to buy a "diesel blend" and affirms that #1 diesel by law is not sold in our state. Diesel blend is only available at my dealership, which makes me wonder why I was not told this so I could have avoided all the frustration of draining the tank and replacing filters.

Knowing what to Ask For

This started my education into the different terms and types of diesel fuel. Asking for #1 diesel like my owner’s manual suggested was a waste of time because of the EPA Clean Air Standards Act. Looking for ‘off road’ diesel was allusive because it is also known as diesel blend and also called non-road. Diesel blend is a mix of half kerosene and #2 diesel with anti-gel additives added. It is easy to identify once you are educated to ask for the right type because it is pink in color (see photo).

I now know to ask for off-road, non-road or winter blend. Whether it is guarding superior knowledge or assuming  the consumer comes with a complete understanding of the various grades, terms and types of diesel fuel, it is essential that we end users know specifically what to ask for especially if we live in a cold climate.

EPA standards for diesel. The Environmental Protection Agency has developed standards for diesel fuel and its use. Diesel is used in road vehicles, trains, boats, construction equipment, farm equipment, heating and a host of other types of equipment and it has to comply with certain EPA fuel standards. The emissions from burning diesel fuel can be very harmful to our lives and especially our respiratory systems so the EPA has developed strict guidelines regarding its use. Having had asthma almost my entire life I fully appreciate the efforts of the EPA in helping keep our air clean.

Winter blend/summer blend. The diesel fuel available at the pump is generally #2 diesel to which the dealer adds an anti-gel component for cold weather. There is a summer blend and winter blend of #2 diesel and most dealers don’t seem to actually know when the winter blend starts to be treated with anti-gel. It is simply supplied and put into the storage tank to mix with the summer blend. That is why it is important that we consumers add additional anti-gel additive. When the temperature drops to single digit or below zero the #2 tends to gel even though it has been pre-treated with anti-gel.

In essence, using the wrong type of diesel fuel at the wrong time of year can be costly and frustrating when the equipment will not run. Not everyone has a heated garage/barn to keep diesel equipment in to ensure it will start when needed.

We keep our diesel tractor under the front deck covered with a tarp to keep the snow off but that offers no protection against the cold temperatures. We have a block heater for the engine but not a heater for the gas tank and two filters. Our dealer suggested we purchase a ceramic heater ($2,000+) to keep the tractor warm. Perhaps some could run right down and buy such a heater, but that is beyond our means, as is building a separate building and heating it so the tractor can stay warm. We heat our home with a wood stove and we spend much of our time keeping ourselves and our fur family warm, so keeping our tractor warm is not practical for us.

It would have been nice if our dealer would have told us about diesel blend instead of just telling us to add more anti-gel, or if the owner’s manual could have been more accurate and descriptive. Regretfully, neither happened so we learned the hard way. It has been a lesson we will not forget easily.

References: EPA Diesel Standards 

For more on Bruce and Carol McElmurray and their mountain lifestyle go to: Bruce and Carol live at 9,800 feet elevation remotely in a small cabin in the Sangre de Christo mountains with their four German Shepherd Dogs. Read all of Bruce's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

The PV EV RV: A Mechanical-Engineering Question for Solar-Electric Vehicles

Left: rigid, glass panel. Right: thin film flexible panel. 

First, here's a quick recap of my solar-electric VW bus conversion.

With the advent of thin, semi-flexible solar panels weighing in at just 6 pounds per 150 watts, the weight limitation of solar panels on vehicles has been lifted. For the weight of a well-fed man, a solar-powered vehicle enthusiast can include a level two charger on board. That’s over 6,000 watts of charging power. On my electric VW bus, that’s a full 100 miles of range in 5 hours of direct solar exposure. (Tracking the sun at all would give the opportunity to grab significantly more miles per day.)

That’s wonderful, but there is a catch: surface area. 5 kilowatts of solar panels would require five 1,000-watt arrays, one on each side of the van, plus the center. Obviously, now with a 15-foot width and some extremely floppy panels, we would have a problem. But what if we fold the panels in? We can then stop, unfold, and charge while we have lunch or enjoy a river swim.

Better yet, with all this unfolded surface area, we have a large shade roof. If I set it up as it is in my mind: a Solar-Electric Transforming Tiny House! It’s an off-grid mobile tiny home with all the electricity you need to heat, cool, light and then drive! In other words, we have a photovoltaic electric-vehicle RV, or "PV EV RV"!

Moving the Solar RV Project Forward

Phase 1

Work has begun on Phase Two of the project. Phase One, however, was a success and would likely be more appropriate for some folks.  The focus of Phase One was cost and the interest of supplying moms and their local transport to and from school, the grocery store, etc.

Currently, my wife is driving Phase One of the solar-electric bus. She sets a timer to have the bus heated when she and the kids get in. She tries to park in the sun when possible. It’s great to see the bus being used in a practical situation. It is a real solution.

The cost for this conversion was around $25,000. I put in many extras and, as a result of it being the “first-time” build, I spent more to get over that hump. If I was to refine the process and lean out on the parts, I could have built this bus for $10,000 to 15,000. Phase One is a financially feasible workhorse!

Phase 2

That said, let’s spend some money. If an individual was not entirely concerned about cost and wanted more the freedom and versatility that getting out beyond the charging stations offer, then immediately one would look at battery pack. The lead-acid pack came in at $2,800. The lithium iron phosphates, which would double storage (range) and reduce the vehicle weight by 500 pounds, comes in at $12,000. Then we have a 100 mile-per-charge RV!

Now there is no need to build a sealed battery box or vent it. A cooling fan would be wise, but other than that, it makes putting the phosphates in much simpler.

Now let’s talk solar. Chinese semi-flexible solar panels come in at about $2 per watt if purchased in bulk.  For 6 kilowatts, that’s also $12,000 — what a coincidence. However, as a result of the Chinese influx of cheap solar panels, tariffs have been imposed on these panels. You could likely get a sizable bill in the mail from the U.S. government after your initial purchase.

Some companies have a 250% tariff on solar panel purchases. It’s worth doing your homework. Using a custom shop like Solbian out of Italy would ensure quality without fear of Tariff. However, I’ve been quoted as much as $800 per 150-watt panel going this route. This would be $32,000 for 6 kilowatts. Granted, they can make these panels custom, and I’m sure with great quality, however $32,000 just for solar panels is a little beyond the financial reach of most of us. (Sponsors?)

Either way, for a $24,000 upgrade, one could drive and live completely on sunshine with an impressive range and an on-board power source. If we lean down the initial cost of the conversion, we are at total of about $35,000, not including labor.

Left: lead acid battery. Right: lithium iron phosphate battery 


At this point, I’m compelled to face the labor and basic material cost portion of the build. I’m a mechanical engineer working in the alternative energy world now for 20 years. I did all the work myself, from cutting the metal for the top apparatus to wiring up the motor. With this included the cost of the Phase Two vehicle climbs high, likely over $100,000.

Given the circumstances, I would recommend a project like this only to experienced electrical and mechanical engineers for feasibility as well as safety reasons. If you have a friend with this education and experience to guide you, go for it! I will continue to offer guidance so others can enjoy the solar-electric freedom as I have. Education must commence for us all to be more free. In the next blog post, we will be covering motor selection. Check out more specifics on my website: Have fun!

Photos by Kira Belan 

Brett Belan lived off-grid in California for a decade before moving to Ashland, Oregon, and co-founding Apparent Energy, an engineering company dedicated to improving our electrical systems. He spends his free time building improving a converted 1973 Solar-Electric VW Bus. Follow Brett on Facebook and Instagram, and read his article in Home Power magazine. Read all of Brett’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

Walking Picks Up Speed for Exercise and Transportation: 20 Tools and Signs of Progress

As life grows ever more challenging, with concerns about health and the future nagging at us, one solution can be as simple as taking a walk.

That’s the reassuring news from U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek H. Murthy, who last year declared “physical activity is one of the best things Americans can do to improve their health and walking is an easy way to get moving” in his landmark Call to Action to Promote Walking and Walkable Communities.  He added that the benefits go beyond health. “It brings business districts to life and can help reduce air pollution.”

Noting that one out of two American adults suffers from a chronic disease like diabetes or heart disease and that walking reduces the risk of these conditions, Murthy initiated the Step It Up campaign to help Americans of all ages, races, income, regions and ability levels to walk more.

Murthy explained why he focuses on walking among many other forms of physical activity:

•It is already Americans’ favorite form of aerobic exercise.
•It is free.
•It does not require special skills, facilities or equipment.
•It can be done year-round, outdoors or indoors.
•People with disabilities can “walk” by rolling in wheelchairs.
•For busy people, a walk can often do double duty as transportation or social time with friends.

“Many of us live in neighborhoods that can present barriers to walking,” he acknowledged. “There may be no sidewalks; or there may be concerns about safety.” 

 “Physical activity should not be the privilege of the few,” Surgeon General Murthy added. “It should be the right of everyone.”

Signs of Progress and Advocacy Tools for Walking

Millions of Americans are now discovering that walking is good for our health, our social lives, our communities, our economic prospects and our overall happiness. Here are some of the recent signs:

1. A miracle drug. A September cover story on “The Exercise Cure” in Time magazine cited brisk walking, and even walking the dog, as the sort of “moderate intensity” workout that “works like a miracle drug”.

2. Walkable streets benefit everyone. Fast Company — a magazine renown for staying ahead of the curve on business trends — offered “50 Reasons Why Everyone Should Want More Walkable Streets.” Among their findings: “4) It makes people happier…...8) It makes neighborhoods more vital… …16) It boosts the economy…18) It makes people more creative and productive….”

3. More feet on the street. The number of Americans reporting they walk more now increased 14 percent in a 2012 USDOT survey of pedestrian behavior, compared to a 2002 survey.  This corroborates numerous local pedestrian counts documenting a rise in walking for transportation, recreation and exercise. Meanwhile the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) points to a six percent increase in the number of Americans walking between 2005 and 2010 (latest figures available). That adds up to 20 million more people on their feet.

4. The path to prosperity and social equity. The most walkable metropolitan areas in the US are also the most prosperous, with lower levels of social inequity than auto-dependent areas, says a new study by the George Washington University School of Business. Low-income people in walkable neighborhoods spend more on housing but benefit even more from lower transportation costs and better access to jobs.

 5. Lack of exercise almost as deadly as smoking. A groundbreaking study conducted over 50 years shows low levels of physical activity are more lethal than high blood pressure, high cholesterol and other closely-watched medical conditions. These findings affirm an earlier Cambridge University study showing that lack of exercise increased the risk of death twice as much as obesity.

6. Booming real estate trend. Eighty five percent of Americans report that living near places to walk was important to them, according to  the National Association of Realtors’ latest Community Preference and Transportation Survey. This is even more true for Millennials, who favor walking as transportation over driving by 12 percentage points.

7. Feel better — and better about yourself. Communities good for walking enjoy lower obesity, lower diabetes, and more people who feel good about their appearance, according to new data from the Gallup Healthways Well-Being Index.

8. Movement toward stopping climate change. Walking is incorporated into more than half of the recommendations in 50 Steps Toward Carbon-Free Transportation, a detailed report released in October by the Frontier Group. “America’s transportation system has emerged as Climate Enemy #1, with cars, trucks and other vehicles now representing the nation’s largest source of carbon pollution,” states the report.

9. Driverless cars can create pedestrian-filled streets. Many believe autonomous vehicles will transform modern life by turning huge tracts of land now used for parking into sidewalks, bikeways and public space. This will encourage people to walk more, using driverless cars primarily for longer or more complicated trips.

10. Walking means business. Firms in highly competitive fields like technology and marketing have discovered that top talent, especially young people, want to work and live in places a short walk from cafes and cultural attractions, says walking consultant Mark Fenton. Thomas Schmid of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, adds that businesses also want to be in healthier, walkable communities because it decreases their health care premiums. He points to Chattanooga, where Volkswagen built a new plant, in part, because they were promised that a popular walk-bike trial would be extended to their campus

11. Walking means local business. Foot traffic is the lifeblood of most business districts, and improvements that make walking easier and safer pay off economically. A street in West Palm Beach, Florida plagued by speeding traffic was make more walk-friendly, resulting in less crime and $300 million in new private investment.

12. U.S. Department of Transportation champions safe streets. U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, former mayor of Charlotte, launched Safer People, Safer Streets “to help communities create safer, better connected bicycling and walking networks” in response to a steady rise since 2009 in pedestrians killed by motorists.

13. Federal Highway Administration pushes 80 percent cut in pedestrian deaths by 2031. An 80-percent reduction in all pedestrian deaths and serious injuries over the next 15 years is the new goal of the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA in the agency’s recent Strategic Agenda for Pedestrian and Bicycle Transportation. On top of that, the agency is pushing to double the number of short trips (1 mile for pedestrians; 5 miles for bicyclists) taken by Americans by 2025.

14. Vision Zero movement hits the streets. Eighteen cities from Fort Lauderdale to Anchorage have formally pledged themselves to the Vision Zero goal of eliminating all traffic fatalities (foot, bike, car), according to the just-launched Vision Zero Network. Seventeen more are exploring the idea The movement is inspired by Sweden’s success in reducing road fatalities by 50 percent since 2000, thanks to improved street design and stepped up enforcement of speed limits. “We know that speed is the most critical factor in the severity of a traffic injury,” says Leah Shahum, founder and director of the Vision Zero Network.  “That means we must bring speeds down to safe levels.”

15. A growing movement to get us back on our feet. A wide coalition of advocates devoted to better health, social justice, a greener future and community vitality is spreading the word that walking is good for us and our communities. More than 500 people from 44 states participated in the 2015 National Walking Summit  in Washington, DC,  30 percent higher attendance than the first Summit in 2013.  The 2017 Summit is September 13-15 in St. Paul, MN, which will be hosted by America Walks and the Every Body Walk! Collaborative, and sponsored by the Kaiser Permanente health care system.

16. America’s walking renaissance. This new book showcases success stories from communities all over the country where walking is picking up speed, and offers practical tips on how you and your town can walk more. Here’s a free PDF download.

17. A college for walking. Fifty activists from across the US are applying lessons learned at the Walking College to improve health, equity and economic prospects in their hometowns. To apply for the Class of 2017 contact Ian Thomas, the Columbia, MO city council member who heads the college.

18. The case for healthy places. “Your zip code is an important factor to your health,” explains Tyler Norris, Kaiser Permanente Vice President for Total Health Partnerships, announcing a new report. documenting about how to make places healthier. Produced by Project for Public Spaces, “The Case for Healthy Places” will appear later this year and focuses on these key areas: 1) opportunities for social connection and support; 2) opportunities for play & active recreation; 3) access to green & natural places; 4) access to healthy food & beverages; 5) access to walking & biking; and 6) actions for healthcare institutions.

19. Walk audits: A tool to make better Streets. Blue Zone’s Walkable communities guru Dan Burden invented walk audits while he was Florida’s Bike and Pedestrian coordinator to help everyday people improve their communities. Here’s his list of five key things that make streets great places to walk:

Transparency—how appealing buildings and landscapes are to us on the street level;
Enclosure —trees, benches, street parking and other elements that buffer us from moving vehicles;
Complexity—many layers of things to see while strolling down a street;
Imageability—unique features of a place that make it memorable;
Human-scale—a place designed for people, not just cars.

20. First step toward reuniting a divided nation. The recent election spotlights how fractured America has become. Thankfully, walking offers a first step toward reconnecting to one another.  Sidewalks, streets, trails and other public spaces we travel on foot are common ground—literally.  They are among the few places where Americans of all backgrounds come together face-to-face, giving us the chance to smile, wave, talk, share and get to know someone different than ourselves. It is much harder to fear, hate, dismiss or ignore people you cross paths with every day.

Photo credit Dan Burden/Blue Zones

Jay Walljasper writes regularly about public health and healthy communities.  The former editor of Utne Reader, he is author of The Great Neighborhood Book. His website is Read all of Jay’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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Solar Power Meets Electric Vehicle Atop a VW Microbus

VW Camper With Solar Panel

I always wanted an electric vehicle. Not because they are quiet, fast or fashionable, but because I can charge it off the sun! I built a golf cart with a panel on top and hauled wood for years with it. The electric chainsaw ran quite well off the 72-volt bank. What a workhorse! Just park it in the sun.

I realized that if I built a highway-legal vehicle with a good amount of solar on top, I would really have something valuable. I had no idea.

Sizing Solar Panels for Electric Vehicles

The time is here for solar power to make its way to our vehicles. The state-of-the-art panels pose no weight limitation. At 6 pounds per 150 watts, thin flexible solar panels will weigh 600 pounds but give you 15 kilowatts! This is enough to directly drive from the sun.

However, the surface area is a limitation, because that much solar would require 10 feet around the vehicle on all sides. The solution, ironically, is a mechanical engineering question of how to accordion-style fold these panels to conveniently open them for charging while the vehicle is at a standstill.

Considering Design Options for VW Bus Solar Conversion

My first rendition put 1,200 watts on top of the vehicle. I could easily hinge the array in the front of the vehicle for solar tracking. I made a convenient tent space under the array to mimic a VW Westphalia camper design.

Now the 1973 VW transporter is a camper! If I work it, tracking the sun all day, the 1,200-watt array will fill the 14 kilowatt-hour lead-acid battery bank for a 40-mile run. Not even trying around town, there is 20 miles of range waiting just from natural solar exposure — no plugs necessary. My family and I did 1,400 miles this summer using up the month of July. The viability is here!

Brett Belan lived off-grid in California for a decade before moving to Ashland, Oregon, and co-founding Apparent Energy, an engineering company dedicated to improving our electrical systems. He spends his free time building improving a converted 1973 Solar-Electric VW Bus. Follow Brett on Facebook and Instagram, and read his article in Home Power magazine.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.