Save the earth or rescue injured and lost hikers. Which would you choose? Fortunately, you don't have to. A startup called Sunflare has introduced tough rooftop solar that's being used by a search and rescue operation in Washington state. The panels have been mounted to an ex-Swiss Army Pinzgauer vehicle, powering a load of electronics that were formerly powered by the vehicle's gasoline engine.
"By enabling me to power all mission-critical electronics via solar power, it is a much more positive experience," says Branden “Ben” Powell, who uses the vehicle as a volunteer for the King County Search and Rescue squad in Bellevue, Washington.
While the folks being rescued are probably just happy to have been saved, Powell says the solar system is "quieter, cleaner, and makes me feel better being able to continue to help get people home safely in a much more efficient way."
Most people are found within 24 hours after they go missing, but some search and rescue missions can go on for days. The work Powell does ranges from rescuing injured and lost hikers to elderly walkaways, missing kids, crime scene searches and recoveries, and aircraft crashes.
Sunflare has been in development for a dozen years, says CEO Philip Gao. The company "cracked the code" on mass production of CIGS solar panels about two years ago.
CIGS is short for copper indium gallium diselenide solar cell. In short, that means Sunflare panels can be produced with less energy than a rigid silicon solar cell, Gao says. Gallium is a byproduct of mining other metals while silicon cells are made from grains of sand melted at high temperatures.
Sunflare's panels are thin and lightweight. Ten, 12-cell panels are mounted on the roof of the Pinzgauer, on a thin stainless steel frame, adding about 22 pounds to the vehicle. Gao says traditional silicon panels would add four times the weight, and be unable to withstand the rugged terrain, tree branches and other factors encountered during a search and rescue operation.
Powell's vehicle, known as the SARPINZ, is a 1972 model.
The systems running off of Sunflare power include three radios, a siren system speaker, center flashing light bar, rear-view camera and spotlight, GPS navigation, 360-degree lighting, a winch, air compressor, charging plugs for running tablets, phones "and anything else that needs charging," he said. The panels provide 360 watts of power. The vehicle has three batteries on board for a total of about 480 minutes of reserve capacity.
Gao touts Sunflare as "the cleanest of clean technologies," based on such things as the materials used to make it, water requirements during the manufacturing process and recycling of materials.
It can reportedly generate 10% more energy at dawn and dusk because of better low-light performance. Each cell on its panels also has a bypass diode, so only cells that are shaded are turned off, rather than a full row of cells in traditional panels.
Sunflare is headquarted in California, with research and development in Sweden and module manufacturing in China.
The company is targeting "consumer durables" for Sunflare panels, such as recreational vehicles, boats and tiny houses. Besides Powell, RV companies like nuCamp and Vistabule are using the technology, along with ElectraCraft boats.
Its commercial business launched in late September, Gao says, and "we have several confidential contracts signed."
As for Powell's experience so far:
I’m able to run everything and the battery is constantly getting topped off. It gives me a much greater peace of mind and really extends my capacity in the backfield. Now I know I won’t become the next guy the team is looking for!
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