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Since the 1980s, solar cars have been limited to researchers backed by companies interested in profiting from this impractical form of sustainable energy. Not a lot has changed

There are many reasons solar vehicles are absent from Philippine roads.

The most notable is the technical difficulty involved in installing enough solar arrays on a car’s roof to provide adequate power for the engine. Wider roofs are infinitely better. But a wide top runs the risk of increasing the weight of a car, which would need more power to run. A vicious circle.

Although the sun’s rays are free and unlimited, this isn’t the case with solar panels that cost a lot. Research may, someday, improve solar-cell technology, lowering the cost of batteries; but the current market price is still exorbitant. Simply put, it is financially unsound to make—or own—a solar car.

This explains why private groups are involved in developing solar-powered vehicles, only partly funded by academic organizations and government grants. For now though, we’re stuck with exhibits and road tours.

The high-ticket expenditure involved in developing energy-efficient vehicles has deterred the Philippine government from providing grants to people intent on manufacturing solar-powered vehicles.

Under the La Sallian Sun
Only three solar vehicles are Philippine-made, all of which were created with aid from De La Salle University (DLSU). The first one developed in 2007, called Sinag (literally ‘ray’ in Filipino), was a literal heavyweight at 290lbs. Despite an average assessment of Sinag’s potential, its remarkable performance at the 2007 World Solar Challenge (WSC) took everyone by surprise.

Sinag finished 12th out of 40 racecar participants, an unexpected feat considering that competitors from developed countries raced more advance models. The jubilant Philippine team returned home from Australia with a Senate Resolution awaiting them, congratulating their “exemplary performance” as evidence of the country’s “capability to successfully deploy solar power technology in the Philippines.”

Wide acclaim for Sinag’s accomplishment opened doors for DLSU to partner with corporations such as Ford, First Gen, and Shell to build Sikat I (meaning ‘light,’ but also a synonym for ‘ray’). This next generation car was lighter and more energy-efficient, albeit only slightly.

Its creation followed an enthusiastic series of events, beginning with a much-hyped public launch and concluding with a highly anticipated bid to join the 2009 WSC. But Sikat I failed to join the Australian solar car race.

It did not take part in any race. Rather, Sikat I was displayed at exhibits and roadshows around the country in another spirited effort to showcase “Filipino resourcefulness,” at the press releases called it, and the Philippine government’s commitment to developing homegrown, sustainable energy.

Second Coming
It was a only a matter of time before a group of enterprising corporate sponsors offered financial aid to the same team who made the first two electric cars. Perhaps DLSU could remake Sikat I into something more awesome, they thought. Thus, Sikat II was born.

The team responsible for Sikat II comprised a motley crew of 22 students and three professors from the La Salle’s Gokongwei College of Engineering (GCE). To showcase the capabilities of experimental solar vehicles, Sikat II was revealed to the public along a closed stretch of the North Luzon Expressway in Caloocan.

The launch, headed by project leader and DLSU GCE dean Pag-Asa Gaspillo, curiously lacked an announcement to join the WSC this year. Was it a strategy to allow for last-minute improvements? The suspense was killing the media and Philippine solar-transport enthusiasts.

Eventually, the announcement took place in August 2011. Sikat II would fly to Australia in September to compete in this year’s seven-day World Solar Challenge. A 14-person team was to be sent to Darwin, Australia for the competition. The Philippine media celebrated the announcement and enjoined the rest of the country to expect a “new era of sustainability” (from a government press release, this time).

“The team is very proud to have been able to design and create a solar car within seven months,” says Jack Catalan, project leader. Their goal: to beat Sinag’s 12th-place finish in 2007.

But the relatively short time it took to conceptualize and build the car had its drawbacks. The fastest speed remain unchanged at 110kph. Solar-array efficiency hardly improved. Sinag’s was 20%; Sikat was slightly better at 21%. And Sikat II? Well, it was a measly increase at 22%.

Despite lackluster improvements, there were significant changes. Honeycomb panels, which are now used in Sikat II, are more rigid and durable than the foam-core panels used in earlier models.

“We are now race-ready,” says PSCC president Mon Agustines as he addressed journalists at a press conference—many of them the same media that covered DLSU’s earlier solar models, which failed to make it to the top 10 in earlier WSC races.

In the meantime, the solar vehicles created through DLSU grants went on display at the university. It encouraged an enrollment spike at the College of Engineering last summer.

At the time of this writing, the 2011 WSC has come to an end as Sinag II struggled to complete the 3,021-kilometer race, from Darwin to the Australian Outback to Adelaide, over seven days.

Day 3 proved to be a challenge for the Philippine team. Sinag II’s battery exploded as it was being recharged for the next day.

Starting in 32nd place at the end of Day 1, Sinag II made it to 20th place as it reached the finish line on Day 7—eight places behind the first car’s ranking in 2007.

Print ed: 11/11

 

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