Next to a bicycle, the solar car may be the quintessential alternative vehicle. Granted, commercially viable ones are still considered purely visionary, but this year, a solar car did make its way from Canada to Austin, powered purely by the sun. I’m not ashamed to admit that we shared a close encounter.
Termed the Power of One, the project began in Brazil with an “aha” moment. More than twenty years later, the project produced a vehicle, the XOF1, and a self-appointed ambassador of solar energy, project founder and XOF1 inventor, Marcelo da Luz, who first contacted me in March of 2008. The car was built, track tested in Toronto, Canada, and ready to embark on what seemed like an impossible journey of 10,000 miles to beat the land distance record for a solar vehicle, and to be the first solar car to reach the Arctic Circle.
I covered the story as it took off in June of 2008, but the expedition seemed to limp along, almost from the get-go, hampered by an unseasonably wet Canadian summer and a lack of major sponsorship. Ultimately, the determined da Luz completed his goal but rather than turn around and go home, he just kept driving, motivated by nature and the nurturing he encountered, rarely declining any opportunity to speak about the project, particularly at elementary schools.
He, the XOF1, and a vagabond support crew in a GMC van, drove along the Alaska Highway, eventually crossing into the Pacific Northwest, through the desert Southwest and across Texas, stopping in Austin, where we met for the first time, more than a year after our first communication.
A singular guy, da Luz sunk everything he had, including the kitchen sink, into the project. The dollar amount is an estimated $500,000. The crew who joined him on this leg of the journey, were some of the most likeable and engaging people I’ve ever met. Winnie Ko, from Hong Kong, Michael Feith from the Netherlands who was so inspired by the project after meeting Marcelo in Alaska, he rejoined, and songwriter Diana Williamson from Canada who hosted the crew in Los Angeles.
Unfortunately, they reached Austin on one of the rainiest weekends in April. The XOF1, however, can hold a charge for up to 75 miles, so we managed to make the press conference I had arranged at City Hall, where City Manager Marc Ott greeted us. The next day, we joined the parade of hotrods along Congress Avenue. The sea of camera flashes and thumbs up gave me a little taste of why Marcelo and crew kept rolling along, inspiring and being inspired. After that, we naturally ended up on Sixth Street.
It’s been five months since that visit and the tour has finally ended, ironically, in Inuvik, Canada, the last outpost near the Arctic Circle and because the GMC van finally ran its course, not the XOF1. Marcelo felt compelled to return to the Artic Circle one more time and log a final 22,151 miles, despite being pulled over innumerable times as a suspected UFO. If he can find real sponsorship this time, he’ll fire up the XOF1 again, and head south, to Argentina and the South Pole, or along the ice road between Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk.
The XOF1 may not be unique, others continue to build and race solar cars everyday, but the kind of no-holes-barred determination and focus that propelled Marcelo and also charmed volunteers along the way to join the tour, host the team, or adopt a kilometer, merits a mention. Lending a personal hand, connecting in some way to the solar dream, provided a moment in time that is uniquely mine.
As for the quintessential alternative vehicle, a solar-powered car may not be on the horizon, but the all-new Toyota Prius does have solar panels on it, so the signs are encouraging.