Electrifying Solar Energy

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dvance scouts for renewable energy have plied Minnesota's lakes since 1992. The scouts are high and middle school technology students, piloting solar-powered boats built in class. The Minnesota Renewable Energy Society (MRES) has organized all but the first of the Regattas and hosted the Junior Solar Sprint model car competition as a companion event.

Larger Minnesota renewable energy projects include multi-million dollar wind farms in the state's southwestern corner and the brilliant "Green Streets" exhibit at the Science Museum of Minnesota. But it's hard to beat the Regatta/Sprint for color, educational value, and a youth-oriented family atmosphere. It is a hands-on grassroots effort in which volunteers, teachers, and, most of all, students work with and exhibit the technology which will take our sorry economy into the 22nd century.


The Solar Boat Regatta is an educational event, and the atmosphere is something between a "Little Rascals" romp and a science fair. Rules and judging are designed to force teams to operate on power from solar panels and to consider their boats as real world systems that need to use power frugally.

Boats may be built from scratch or may use modified commercial hulls. The field runs from commercial canoes balancing solar panels, kids, batteries, and trolling motors, to sleekly sculpted polystyrene dreams with inlaid photovoltaic panels. MRES wants teams to compete with peers so there are four classes of entry. Middle schools use 150 Watt panels and either build their hulls or modify commercial hulls. Senior high teams use either 150 or 300 Watt panels. Boats are limited to two lead-acid batteries with a combined capacity of 220 Amp hours at 12 Volts or 110 Amp hours at 24 Volts. There's no on-shore battery charging or swapping. Boats are inspected by the US Coast Guard and carry fire extinguishers and Minnesota registration. Boats must be piloted (no remotely controlled boats) and pilots must be swimmers and wear life preservers.

Teams post presentation boards including school and team-member names, plans, photos, and text about their boats. Teams also make oral presentations. In 1996, Minneapolis' North Community High said that they had designed their "Solar III" as a third world mini-freighter and St. Paul's Como Park Senior High School thought of their "Solar Splash" as a solution to the noise versus access dilemma faced in Minnesota's Boundary Waters.


There are four events, and boats are encouraged to run in all four. In the Speed Race the boats race a designated straightaway in small heats with the fastest time winning. In the Endurance Run the boats circle an island for two hours. The boat that runs the most laps wins. In the Maneuverability Race each boat slaloms through a course of buoys while trying not to touch them, the nearby shore, or take on water. The fastest time wins. The toughest event is run without batteries. Powered directly by their panels, the boats repeat the speed race. The '96 event was held on a drizzly, overcast day, but four of the teams managed to creep through the course, using panels only.

Performance in these events counts for 50% of each team's total score. A team of five to seven judges evaluates maneuverability, innovative design, hull form, hull/pv compatibility, and material selection. Spectators vote on aesthetics. These evaluations make up the other 50% of the teams' scores. Judges acknowledge the creativity and effort that goes into each boat, because every boat in the Regatta represents the promise of its teenage engineers.


The Minnesota Solar Boat Regatta has been growing steadily since its beginning in 1992. It had nine teams then and eleven teams in the '96 event plus several out-of-state inquiries, leading MRES to believe that there are nascent Solar Boat Regattas elsewhere (MRES is eager to help them). In 1994 MRES began holding the Junior Solar Sprint alongside the Regatta. This has added interest and made a larger event. Crowds have grown over the years from family and passersby at the beginning to committed fans and television news cameras in '95 and '96.

Many personalities have shaped and organized the event. Hartmut Ginnow, an Industrial Design instructor at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, built a solar boat and was featured in one of the local papers. John Anderson, a Technical Arts instructor at Minnetonka Senior High School saw the article featuring Hartmut and contacted him about holding a competition.

Anderson had an interest in solar power and a history of finding projects to get his students excited about learning, including Minnesota's High-Mileage Vehicle Race and various solar demonstration projects. In an effort to expose his students to as wide a variety of solutions to the problem of designing a solar boat, Anderson decided to open up the Regatta to anybody who wanted to enter and advertised in national solar energy publications. Nine boats, including one from Marquette University and one built by a Tennessee family, came to the United States' first Solar Boat Regatta.

Ralph Jacobson, a Twin Cities builder, photovoltaic dealer, and MRES Board Member, remembered the difficulty he'd had learning electricity in high school and made sure that all the participants in his solar charging seminar were up to speed about watts and volts first by giving a short basic electricity course. Other organizers' workshops give teams basic information about hull, propulsion, electrical, and solar design.

Organizing and Sponsorship

As soon as the last boat is loaded on its trailer, there's a sense of relief and accomplishment. Another Regatta/Sprint has come and gone, but organization for the next year's event begins right away. Thank you letters go out to supporters, evaluations from teachers need to be read and acted on, and the organizers need to debrief each other. Workshops and presenters for next year's teams are coordinated. Organization is year-long operation for MRES. Volunteers put in hundreds of hours each year. They ask businesses, foundations, and friends for money to fund the Regatta/Sprint, arrange with the City of St. Paul for use of a site, and negotiate the best insurance deal. They also publicize the event, writing press releases and speaking to the press.

The amount of time teachers and students spend preparing for the Solar Boat Regatta ranges from "pretty much" to entire class years. Building a solar boat is as simple or complex as you want to make it.

Rudy Chmelik, of Hastings Senior High, uses the Regatta as a Spring Quarter Technical Arts project and would like to go all year. He says, "(In 1998) I want to divide into two teams in the fall. One would build a solar

Junior Solar SprintSchool Task Creating Boat

boat, and the other would build a high-mileage vehicle. Each team would treat its task as a complete engineering project. You have time, money, knowledge, materials, and a deadline."

Ryan Sanford, a junior at Hackensack-Walker-Akley Senior High School, built his school's entry single-handedly. Ryan spent 350 hours on the project, more than 200 of them sanding, patching, and painting his salvaged catamaran's hulls.

School budgets being notoriously tight, official financial support for Solar Regatta projects is rare. Teachers and students spend a lot of time fundraising for their boats. Allan Meyer of Apple Valley Middle School approaches potential sponsors personally, sending out letters and press releases with pictures and making a lot of phone calls. John Lindquist, the Pillager Senior High School sponsor, has his students price materials and write a budget. Then students write to potential sponsors with guidance and correction from their English teacher.

Jeff Bunkert, the teacher who sponsored the Valley View Middle School team, challenged other teams to match their accomplishment of building a boat for $200 and in under two months. Valley View borrowed panels and another teacher's canoe, and were given wire, loom, and odds and ends by a local hardware store. They used two $100 donations to buy batteries and life jackets.

Rudy Chmelik sees fundraising as part of the total engineering project and says that one of the lessons his students learn is how to talk to adults. He says, "They dress up and talk to civic groups. When the groups receive effective presentations from kids, they're usually generous." His students have produced posters, a five-minute video, and sell "Solar Boat" buttons as part of their campaign. The funds from the button campaign are being matched by a department store.

The Solar Boat Regatta is a valuable tool for reaching and teaching kids. This is a problem-solving project. Students who build solar-powered boats take that experience into other classes, and carry it with them in later life. The problem-solving comes because teams have to satisfy judges who are looking for boats that are designed so their different parts work well together. The teenaged engineers wrestle with the problems of designing boats that float a cargo and crew of up to 500 pounds, travel with minimum friction (the maximum speed of a boat in miles per hour will be approximately 1.4 times the waterline length of the boat in feet), and still be maneuverable. They do all this within the time and financial limits of high school social clubs. Kids who build the boats work with solar technology and learn at least one reference for solving future energy problems without falling for the notorious false dilemmas associated with energy and the economy. In a time when it's loudly wondered why kids aren't being better educated, they are lining up to take the class where you build the solar boat. They are all pumped up about their boats, learning a lot of subtle teachings. Those teachings have to do with—ugh—math, physics, and engineering.


The Solar Boat Regatta is a valuable tool for reaching and teaching the public, too. It's an example of solar technology working conspicuously, in a city park, one day in June. People see the boats there and local television stations send cameras. The boats are proudly displayed at school, in hometown papers, in local parades, and at the state fair. They're built by students, and that leads to two notions: students are learning exactly the kind of skills that educational critics say are missing in today's schools and solar technology isn't the obscure, impossible dream we've been told (it's child's play). Students take to this project eagerly, and parents and teachers are swept along in their wake.

The Solar Boat Regatta/Junior Solar Sprint is an attractive, growing event. In a boat-happy state like Minnesota, the teams build colorful, fantastic boats. MRES has a team of committed volunteers who spend a lot of time publicizing and managing the event. In '96, the Science Museum of Minnesota came on board as a sponsor, providing a lot of help with copying and publicity. According to Chuck Penson, director of the museum's computer education center, "Something like copying, which is a big deal for a small organization, is nickle and dime for sizeable company." The Regatta is beginning to make these important connections, and with the Twin Cities' affection for big civic parties like the Minneapolis Aquatennial and the St. Paul Winter Carnival, the Solar Boat Regatta and Junior Solar Sprint may become the kernel for another of those celebrations.

This year's Regatta happened on May 31. Access

For further information about MRES's Solar Boat Regatta, contact authors Tom Roark at 612-721-2103 or Ralph Jacobson at 612-647-0758 Web: freenet.msp.mn.us/ip/env/mres.

Photos by Tibb Wozniak and Julie Jozwiak

Home Power's special kudos to these Regatta folks:

John Anderson, a Technical Arts instructor at Minnetonka Senior High School

Brad Buxton, of Midwest Boat Builders

Steve Dess, MRES member

John Dunlap, a solar engineer with Minnesota Department of Public Service Energy Division

Hartmut Ginnow, former industrial design instructor at Minneapolis College of Art and Design

Amy Hoagberg, former 3M engineer

Ralph Jacobson, a Twin Cities builder, photovoltaic dealer, and MRES Board Member

Martin Lunde, a mechanical and structural engineer and a lifelong boating enthusiast

Chuck Penson, director of the Science Museum of Minnesota's Computer Education Center

Tom Roark, MRES member ^

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