Operation Helios

Photo by David Monje on Unsplash

The following is a guest-post from Cameron Turner

A few years ago, it was announced that our kids’ school, located a block from our house, would close. In our search for a new school we found one which checked all our boxes.

However, the new school is about 4 miles from our house. Unwilling to give up our car-free school commute, we brainstormed solutions. Too far to walk, too far for kids to bike, and too far for Dad to bike with kids on the back, we were stuck.

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Whole-family outing, circa 2015

Years before, we had invested in the Xtracycle EdgeRunner to get kids to/from preschool on the Stanford campus, where the best routes are blocked to cars but open to bikes. What if we electrified our old bike to solve our problem?

After a search and support ticket Xtracycle.com we were put in touch with a bike shop in Castro Valley who were willing to retrofit our bike with a Bafang 1000-watt electric motor and battery kit.

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On the first test-ride I was hooked. I could pretend this was a practical and environmental solution to avoid use of our gas-powered car, but the joy of gliding silently (and effortlessly if so desired) through the side streets of Palo Alto and Menlo Park on an electric bike was simply a thrill.

While electric cars and bikes hold huge potential to reducing carbon emissions, they still fail to answer the environmental and economic question of what’s upstream: the source of electricity. According to the Palo Alto utility, roughly 2/3rds of Palo Alto electricity comes from large hydroelectric dams, certainly more climate-friendly than coal plants, but these sources come with their own environmental impacts.

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Source: City of Palo Alto Utilities

The obvious place to turn was solar — With a $100 Mighty Max solar panel on the garage roof, a $449 Goal Zero Yeti 400 Portable Power Station, and a few connectors, we had a stand-alone power station in the back yard that was more than adequate to power the daily 8-mile round-trip to/from school.

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Yeti 400 (www.goalzero.com)

While it took a couple of tries to get the configuration correct, we’re now over 2,300 miles on this solar panel > power station > electric bike stand-alone solution. Our car gets ~23 miles a gallon, so 100 gallons of gas have saved us $400 dollars already, independent of insurance, maintenance, etc.

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According to the EIA, each gallon of gas also amounts to roughly 20 pounds of CO2, so our little rig has already reduced carbon emissions by 2,000 pounds!

In the winter we occasionally need to top up the battery with house AC, when the days grow short, and shadows long. But Spring through Fall this set up has given us more power than we need, not just for the school commute but various jaunts around town.

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Mighty Max Solar Panels in our back yard

In summary, here are the supplies needed:

  • One 100 watt Mighty Max solar panel: $100 (now $77)
  • One 400 watt Yeti Goal Zero power station: $449
  • 1000 watt Bufang motor and battery kit: $1000
  • Professional installation of above: $200
  • Upgraded solar cable (for connecting panels to power station): $24

All-in, we are at $1773 (not including bike) for this set up. This (along with Palo Alto’s mild climate) has also enabled us to become a 1-car family.

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Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Helios

Helios was a greek god was known for riding the chariot of the sun across the sky each day according to ancient mythology. While the above is nothing so grandiose as this, there is nothing better than riding with your kids on our own solar-powered chariot to school, gliding past traffic in the bike lane.

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Please reach out if you’d like tips on how to set up your own! oxfordalum@gmail.com