Saturday, September 13, 2008

Swiss Solar Taxi in NYC

The rain flaps clap against the sides of the futuristic, blue electric low-rider, and West Side Highway drivers crane their necks to make out the origin of the odd automobile, with its solar panel trailer in tow. As the passenger raises his right arm to signal a lane change, the driver sounds the giddy, high-decibel horn.

“New Yorkers love it,” said Palmer. “They all want to trade cars with me.”

This week, America’s largest metropolis is graced by the presence of the Solar Taxi, and the inventor-cum-driver, Louis Palmer, is more than happy to enlighten auto mavens, alternative energy aficionados, and naysayers about his creation.

Solar Taxi’s historic around-the-world journey thus far has encountered only a few minor breakdowns and just two small accidents, when cars collided with the solar panel trailer in Syria and India.

“Having driven over 1000 passengers, this little car is still running like a Swiss clock,” said Palmer.

With a start and finish in Palmer’s hometown of Lucerne, Switzerland, the Solar Taxi has already driven through 28 countries in 14 months. So far, 36-year-old Palmer’s adventure has traversed 5 continents, and he promised his mother that the zero-emissions vehicle would be home by Christmas.

“Palmer has a bold, idealistic vision,” said Johann Aeschlimann, spokesman for the Swiss Consulate in New York.

Half of the Solar Taxi’s power actually comes from the solar panels on the trailer, while the other half is taken from the power grid when Palmer charges up at night, using whichever adapter is necessary in the host country.

The Solar Taxi is a concept that represents the tremendous promise of alternative energy, said Palmer, who acknowledges that he is not advocating for impractical solar powered cars. He refers to it as a taxi so that bystanders feel free to ride along.

Through the solar car concept, Palmer projects a future in which electric cars plug into the power grid and take power drawn predominantly from solar, wind, and biomass sources. He believes this sort of technology will most quickly materialize in places like Mazdar, a zero-carbon city in Abu Dhabi.

Palmer said that his solar-electric concept hybrid vehicle cost $10,000 to build, while the solar panel trailer was an additional $5,000.

He calculates his energy balance sheet every year with the diligence of the most prudent accountant and likens it to an energy bank from which he can withdraw power with his debit card.

With the car’s electric meter, Palmer always makes sure never to exceed the annual amount generated by the solar cells on his rooftop in Lucerne, which last year harnessed a surplus of 2000 kilowatt-hours in excess of the 3000 kwh used by the Solar Taxi.

The vehicle has a 130-mile-range and maximum speed of 55mph. When the solar panel trailer is attached, the car can run over 300 miles.

“He’s combined technology and innovation to come up with renewable energy solutions, providing us with the inspiration to create scalable solutions,” said Cynthia Smith, a curator at the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, which hosted the official New York welcoming of the Solar Taxi.

Palmer, who works as a substitute teacher, dreamt up the concept as a 14-year-old in homeroom, as classmates were chatting about ski trips and knives. After his teacher warned him of the dangers of carbon emissions, Palmer conjured up several plans to travel the world - each designed to promote a distinct vision of greener, zero-carbon transport.

A six-language polyglot, Hungarian-born Palmer traveled Africa on a bike in 1994, Asia by car in 2001, and was a development aid worker in Afghanistan in 2002.

“Now, the goal is to promote solar energy. It’s here, and it’s just a matter of applying it,” said Palmer.

The main sponsor of the Solar Taxi’s maiden voyage is Q Cells, a German solar panel manufacturer that contributed the solar panel trailer, travel funds, and the car’s blue and black color scheme. A smattering of Swiss crests on the car’s exterior indicates the national origin of most of the car’s parts.

The voyage included the 2007 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bali, where the Solar Taxi scooped up Mayor Michael Bloomberg for a ride. The car will be in Poznan, Poland for the next U.N Climate Change Conference on December 3rd.

Jay Leno and Larry Hagman have been two other notable passengers in the U.S. Although Leno compared the present incarnations of the electric car to veggie burgers, he ended up plugging the Solar Taxi on his personal website, according to the Solar Taxi film crew from Berlin who spent three hours with Leno around his L.A. mansion.

“The craziest times were in India, where we broke down for 10 minutes down the street from the Taj Mahal,” said Thomas Gottschalk, the team’s mechanical engineer. “A group of over 50 Indians crowded around to gawk at us and our alien vehicle. The traffic was also the most dangerous there,” he said.

Palmer recalled spectacular police escorts in Syria and Saudi Arabia. Also astounded by the amount of attention received in the United Arab Emirates and China, Palmer said, “Every government official was like an Al Gore.” Palmer reported the coldest reaction was in Australia, where he encountered surprisingly little enthusiasm for green technology.

“We have a tradition of alternative energy in Switzerland, a country where things are really moving,” said Christoph Bubb, Consul General of Switzerland in New York.

Bubb continued, “From Switzerland, the sun21 solar-powered catamaran has already taken Columbus’ route to the New World. Bernard Piccard circumnavigated the globe in a balloon and is currently developing a solar plane with the same wingspan as an Airbus 380, which should be ready by 2011.”

Palmer plans to segue the Solar Taxi into his next project by the end of 2009, an around-the-world-in-80-days trip with a fleet of electric cars.

“I’m playing it safe in the Manhattan rain just because we have only a few months before reaching home,” said Palmer, before backing the Solar Taxi into a parking spot in front of the eco-friendly Solaire building next to Battery Park.

Palmer said, “We know the petroleum party is over 20 years from now. If this Solar Taxi is not the future, then there is no future.”

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