There are not too many “solar rock stars” in the world but Pacific Palisades resident Greg Glenn was treated like one when he participated in the 2007 World Solar Challenge electric vehicle race from Darwin to Adelaide, an annual 1,877 mile run across the Australian outback. For Glenn it was a homecoming — he was the only person on site who had also participated 20 years earlier in the inaugural Solar Challenge, then as a team member of the GM Sunraycer entry. The Sunraycer won the 1987 event. Many of the 2007 participants, predominantly college students, weren’t even born when Glenn’s team won the inaugural race. (The 1996 movie, Race the Sun, with Halle Berry is loosely based upon a team in the World Solar Challenge.)What changed in the generation between the two races? According to Glenn, “The race in 1987 seemed to be a fun and lighthearted challenge. Today, while we are now collectively feeling the dire effects of a quickly diminishing oil supply, the challenge has become more serious. If nothing is done we will possibly all be riding bikes or walking 20 years hence. We must learn to use what nature provides in its inexhaustible forms or we will stop moving.”Few have been more involved in coaching electricity from inexhaustible sunlight than Greg Glenn. Over three decades ago he entered the field of photovoltaics and his resume could double as a history lesson in the development and application of solar cells. Working at Spectrolab in Sylmar, Glenn helped solar power scores of earth orbit satellites including commercial craft, the International Space Station, GPS and other projects. Glenn also worked on a number of exotic interplanetary space probes such as the Venus Radar Mapper, Mars Global Surveyor, Mars Lander, the Mars Rovers Spirit and Opportunity and other craft that have given humankind its first up close look at other celestial bodies.Closer to Earth, Glenn also worked on the Pathfinder solar powered aircraft, an unmanned ultra light Jules Verne creation that can cruise in the upper atmosphere for weeks at a time. The advanced generation Pathfinder Plus used its 121 foot wingspan to climb to an altitude of 80,201 feet, highest ever for a propeller driven craft.Back on Earth, Glenn was a Project Manager for Spectrolab/Boeing where he helped develop and market 40% efficient concentrator solar cells that are currently being used around the world. Glenn holds a number of solar energy patents and has published many research tracts.How have photovoltaics progressed over the last 30 years?”When I started in the early Eighties, silicon solar panels were about 10 percent energy efficient and cost about $12/watt. Now silicon panels are just shy of 20 percent efficient and cost about $4/watt. They thus take up half the area and cost about one-third as much. That’s progress.”What about Governor Schwarzenegger’s goal to have one million California homes solar powered?”You’re basically pre-paying your electricity for the next 25 years. It still makes sense, because with inflation, energy costs are sure to increase dramatically in the coming years and you can pay now with pre-inflation dollars. Silicon solar cell prices are now dropping. With the price dropping and tax credits increasing, now is a good time to buy solar for a residence.”What about personal transportation? Nearly two decades ago Glenn converted a Fiat X1/9 two seat sports car to plug-in batter power, and for years it was his daily driver between the Palisades and Sylmar. He has also built a 30mph electric mountain bike, a 45mph battery powered recumbent bike and his 1974 “Aurenthetic” electric scooter. Which brings us back to the 20th anniversary of the 1,877 mile World Solar Challenge race across Australia. Glenn joined a team from the University of Michigan. They fielded a fabulously fast car only to see it crash on the first day due to a miscue by a chase vehicle from another team. Glenn and the Wolverines scrambled to put the vehicle back together again and despite a 10 hour delay and ongoing glitches caused by the impact, the car fought its way back to fourth place overall among 41 competitors. Glenn notes, “Sure, the Michigan team was disappointed that their car didn’t win any awards. But these are the kids who will save the Earth and I respect them a lot. After having raced with them, I have found more faith in humankind and our ability to fix our planet from the damage we’ve caused.”Greg Glenn currently serves as a photovoltaic and electric vehicle consultant.
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