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Solar 'side project' hits the streets
Brian Brown of Renewable Engineered Systems in Martinsville recently partnered with Tennessee-based Rhoades Car to create the solar- and pedal-powered vehicle seen here. (Bulletin photo by Mike Wray)
Tuesday, July 15, 2014
By HARRISON HAMLET - Bulletin Staff Writer
Brian Brown of Renewable Engineered Systems in Martinsville brought solar power to NASCAR car-haulers. Now, he is bringing solar to a driveway near you — and even Buckingham Palace.
After bringing solar to the NASCAR pits with his recent hauler design in a partnership with Pec Motorsports, Brown returned to installing solar panels at homes and businesses in the area.
But a partnership with Rhoades Car has given him a “fun little side project” and the energy-conscious consumer a new option.
Rhoades Car, based in Tennessee, produces a small, pedal-powered vehicle. Although it falls under the category of bicycle according to the Department of Motor Vehicles, the small one- or two-seat vehicle has four wheels and a traditional seat like a car.
While installing solar panels at a home in Roanoke, Brown stumbled upon a Rhoades Car in a garage. He thought the lightweight, simple vehicle would be a good candidate for solar power.
With some initiative and a lot of work on what Brown described as his side project, he forged a partnership with Rhoades Car. After a year and a half of development work, the solar-powered Rhoades Car now is being offered for sale at prices starting at $3,500, according to Brown.
Brown supplies all of the electric parts and pieces, along with his expertise in solar and electric power, while Rhoades constructs and sells the solar-powered Rhoades Cars through its distribution network.
“I told them (Rhoades Car) we could make it better, so after an initial agreement we showed them what we could do and they liked it,” Brown said. “The first one we did was for free and for fun so when the manufacturer saw it they said, ‘Well, yeah.’”
The Rhoades Car has garnered some attention from Martinsville and Henry County to London.
As part of the initial roll-out of the model, local late model stock-car racer Trey Jarrell was among those who drove the solar-powered Rhoades Car. Prince Harry of England also had some time behind the wheel of a two-seat solar-powered version of the Rhoades Car when he attended an alternative-transportation presentation in April put on by London Mayor Boris Johnson.
“The great thing about it is you can pedal around and exercise as much as you like, then just flip the throttle when you get tired,” Brown said. “It’s light enough to pedal up a steep hill, but if you get tired there’s always the electric power.”
The solar-powered Rhoades Car looks more like a bicycle than a street car. Sitting on a simple, narrow “T” frame with bicycle wheels and gearing hanging underneath, the Rhoades Car is not intimidating. The curved roof is home for a small solar panel that can generate enough power to run around town in the Rhoades Car all day, according to Brown.
Like a bicycle, the Rhoades Car has many gears. This allows the dual-use, while also allowing for use in a variety of situations. There are even models of the Rhoades Car available that are used in warehouses, according to Brown. These utility models have a small bed in the back on top of the power pack.
The steering wheel and plastic box on the rear of the frame reveal the technology behind the Rhoades Car. Power travels from the solar panel into a conversion box, which is placed behind the driver and almost hides the tiny electric motor underneath.
The 200-amp system uses a digitally charged controller designed by Brown. The controller is efficient, according to Brown, and is similar to the design used for the NASCAR hauler. The controller is the critical piece of a solar system, converting the energy gathered in the solar panel into the electric torque that comes out of the motor.
“The only thing we really added (to the original pedal-powered Rhoades Car) was the solar panel and the power pack,” which includes the controller and the electric motor, Brown said. “We already knew the technology so we just applied it in a different way here. We took it from the hauler and scaled it down to a little car, all for fun.”
The steering wheel includes brake handles for the four-wheel disc brakes and a thumb throttle similar to those found on jet-skis or all terrain vehicles. The throttle response is “instant,” as Brown said, and perhaps a bit surprising, allowing the Rhoades Car to approach speeds of 35 miles per hour solely under the power of its one-horsepower electric motor, according to Brown.
The regenerative braking system used in modern electric and hybrid cars is not utilized here. The brakes are simple bicycle disc brakes, and the solar panel is able to produce “plenty” of electricity for the Rhoades Car, according to Brown.
Brown said he enjoyed working on the project, but his focus remains on the future of Renewable Engineered Systems, the first full-service alternative energy company in Virginia. Brown added that if that future included more opportunities in the transportation industry, he would not shy away from them.
The Rhoades Car is not sold locally. For more information, visit the website store.rhoadescar.com .