Mother Earth News Fair in Oregon and Our Solar Bus

Reader Contribution by Brett Belan and Apparent Energy
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Hello Mother Earth News people.  I am proud to announce that we made it to the Albany, Oregon Mother Earth News Fair! Better yet, we made it with the Solar Electric VW Bus!!!!

As you know we added a new bank of Lithium Iron Phosphate cells and added another 1000 watts of solar power in the form of an awning. With 45kw-hr of storage, and 2200 watts of tracking solar we headed for Albany. We had hoped to leave by Thursday night as we needed plenty of charge time during the journey.

However, Thursday night I was literally still in the process of finishing the 1000 watt flexible solar panel frame. The 1000 watt solar array consists of a 35 lb aluminum frame and five 200 watt flexible solar panels.  With the panels weighing just 7 lbs each, the total array comes in at 75 lbs. This array is powerful, lightweight and quite rigid.


After  finishing the mounting brackets at about 4 am, me, my wife, and my two children left for Albany. Much to our delight the bus did the 100 mile runs between Ashland and Albany Oregon, with ease. Doing 70mph on the freeway in a VW bus is quite the pleasure.  Although I had plenty of power and speed to climb mountains, I choose to use the RV and truck lanes whenever I could to ease up on my energy usage.

It is perfect writing about the second solar array and the new batteries now, since it has been months since our Albany trip and other trips as well. Now, I can give accurate feedback on performance. Thanks to Thunderstruck motors I have an awesome Battery Management System to keep an eye on all my cells.  The cells balance automatically as they come to full charge…nice. 

In the next blog I’ll be able to share the installation of a Thunderstruck motors display screen. Like gauges in a regular car, it  displays the state of charge, temperature, etc.

Survey Says…..

The bus is a “hundred miler!”  With 45kw-hr at 150 volts nominal, we did some 120 mile runs and discharged only to 3.00 volts per cell.  The deeper you discharge the shorter the lifetime.  We are trying to keep our batteries alive as long as we can.  The batteries can go as low as 2.5 volts per cell.

 Using power to cook, heat, cool etc. brings the range down to a steady 100 mile expectation even with mountain climbs provided you are not a lead foot! The second solar array after months now of tossing it about, is doing great.  It has one obviously cracked cell, but continues to put out power equivalent to the other 4 panels! The flexible type solar panels never seem to put out quite as much of their rated power as do the hard framed panels.  Perhaps the flexible panels cannot get rid of heat as fast as the framed panels can….just a theory.

I saw 5 amps or 75% of the total 1000 watts of power during the Mother Earth News Fair.  Combined with the other 1200 watt array we saw up to 12 amps of power at 150 volts….about 1800 watts actual.  I wasn’t able to move the van to track the sun at the gathering, or I would have charged even more.  I had the opportunity to grab a 110 volt charge from some friendly neighbors and took the plug!  So, I didn’t finish the test at the Faire…..but I did make it to the coast after! I did however get some good solar-only results at a gathering called Burning Man!

Again I could not move the bus, lowering my daily harvest and a fine Playa dust at this gathering settled on the panels and only allowed half of my solar output.  At the gathering I charged full in 7 days.  This means at full solar output I would charge in right around 3 days in summer sun.

What we have is a 100 mile range Solar Electric Vehicle capable of pulling 30 miles per day most of the summer.

On the Agenda………….

My goal with this vehicle is to go 100 miles every two days in the sun. This will require one more 1000 watt array of the same design as the previous flexible,  self-framed panel.  This arrangement seems to be quite durable and very manageable due to its light weight.  So I will do one more! Then I can have 3kw of solar in the sun all day long. This will require 7.5 charging hours at 3kw per day for 45 KW-hr of fun in two days.

Stay tuned as I build the last array and go grab the performance!

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.

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