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Solar Rollers, from Carbondale to Dubai

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By Megan Tackett

Sopris Sun Staff

The emails tend to start around 10 p.m. and keep coming for several more hours. Even though he’s back home in Carbondale and still feeling the jet lag, Solar Rollers executive director Noah Davis’s international work isn’t quite finished.

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“Our equipment crate is still stuck in Dubai, so we’re doing all kinds of international customs clearance stuff to get everything sent back,” he said of his most recent endeavors. “It’s all lots of electronics and weird things, so we’ve talked to a lot of security people at airports.”

Those “weird things” include SunPower solar cells, sheets of carbon fiber, motors and speed controllers, among other equipment likely not common for a customs agent’s review.

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But for the 82 high-school students who just competed in Dubai’s inaugural Solar Rollers race last month, those pieces have become very familiar — after all, they’ve been working with them since January, designing and building functional solar-powered cars. It’s the first time these kids have undertaken a project of that nature, and the stakes were high: the winning team would take home 10,000 dirham — about $2,725.

“It was the biggest event we’ve ever had, and it was in Dubai,” Davis said while sitting at his desk in his shared office space in the Third Street Center. “They’re very serious about solar over there and about education, so they were super enthusiastic and they’re a really good partner. It was a large-scale, very exciting event with a lot of excited students from Dubai. [There were] 17 teams from 17 different high schools [competing].”

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Shams Dubai Solar Rollers is a rollout program sponsored by the Dubai Electricity and Water Authority (DEWA), an arm of the government charged with encouraging property owners to install rooftop solar panels on their buildings and then connecting to DEWA’s grid. So what does that have to do with sponsoring a partnership with a Colorado-based nonprofit that specializes in energy education? Essentially, public relations.

“So Shams Dubai is tasked with installing solar panels on basically every building in Dubai by 2030. They have a big public awareness issue; the public has not seen solar panels installed on buildings yet,” Davis said. “They don’t really understand how the solar works with the utility and how they can sell back the excess. They don’t understand that interaction, so [DEWA is] using this program as a way to teach how this system works, where the excess on a Solar Roller is stored in a battery, and the excess for SHAMS Dubai on a residential system goes back into the grid for other people to use. So they’re trying to use it as a way to teach the public about adopting solar.”

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And it’s promising. Not only is it a creative way to demonstrate how solar energy works to the public (there has even been a documentary made about the program), but it also engages students to put theory into practice. That’s where Solar Rollers plays a key role: they not only provide the materials kits and subsequently send any replacement pieces needed (breaking a solar cell is a common occurrence in the designing stage), but they also facilitate a two-month online course about the mechanics of the remote-controlled cars.

“It’s not live — they do it at their own pace whenever they want — but then if they have questions, they submit the questions through the online course, and then it’s usually Noah or [other Solar Rollers staff], who answers that,” said Zuleika Pevec, Solar Rollers administrator. And while all of the competitors take the same course and all of the materials kits contain the same pieces, what happens afterward depends entirely on the students.

“Teams have lots of design freedom,” Pevec said. “They have to figure out how to get the most energy from their cells while building lightweight and whatever it is that they want to focus on, whether they want a fast car… well, mostly they want a fast car,” she said with a laugh.

Months of trial and error in the classroom culminate in a one-day, six-race competition. Teams earn points for each race, and whichever team has the most points at the end of the contest wins the day. The trophy ceremony is extensive, with 21 awards going out at the event’s end. Solar Rollers sent four people, including Davis, to Dubai to help manage the actual races.

“Most of us were there for nine days,” Davis said. “I was working probably 18 hours a day on average. I never went to a market; I never went to the beach. I was just working. It was so cool.”

And since he’s been back, he hasn’t really stopped working. The Dubai event went incredibly well and will likely happen again, he said, but it’s only part of a larger context. Colorado is currently home to 26 Solar Roller teams, and the organization is rapidly expanding.

“We’re doing racing in Dallas. We’re doing the biggest race ever in Denver at the Museum of Nature and Science. We’re starting in Silicon Valley. We’re finding out about New York next summer. This place looks like a bomb went off, but that’s because everything’s happening at once,” he said, gesturing to his crowded office.

“Really, the whole concept is, build a clean energy system and optimize it so well that you beat all the other teams with your clean energy system. It’s really it an energy-exchange race. It’s all about energy management through these systems and then making that into a national competition,” Davis said about the nonprofit’s domestic growth. “Then somehow Dubai jumped in, and New Zealand is interested now. So we may look at global racing.” And while that is all very exciting, it’s also a very big undertaking for an organization the size of Solar Rollers.

“We’re still just a really small nonprofit, and keeping up with it and finding enough donors and sponsors is very important,” he emphasized.

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