Reporting on green energy

Through the years, I’ve been carving out my beat of green energy. It’s what I’m interested in, not only for the implications on the economy, the electric grid, and technology, but also because I’m a science fiction nerd and believe green tech and renewable energy can help us realize better, cleaner futures.

I’ve been blogging mostly about my creative writing, but I also produce freelance articles as a journalist. Years ago, I interned at Electrical Contractor Magazine, and I’ve been freelancing for them ever since.

EC Mag, published by the National Electrical Contractors Association, covers the latest news about the electrical construction industry. It’s a niche publication, and I learned a lot about magazine writing and design as an intern.

Some of my recent articles cover the nearly 30 cities that have committed to renewable power, how to harness solar power during an eclipse, and the benefits of green energy for rural America.

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The renewable energy industry in America, and worldwide, is growing. And it’s been great to follow it.

Check out EC Mag for all news about the electrical construction industry, especially features on the evolving role of the electrical contractor, safetycodes and standards, green building, and more.

Pedaling to California

Elon senior designs ‘green’ tricycle to raise awareness and help schools in Sri Lanka

by Marlena Chertock, September 3, 2010

Daniel Rhyne, Jesse Lee, Tommy Ausherman and Christian Probst on the trike. Photo submitted by Lee.

The mountains of Virginia stretched on in front. Behind lay thousands of miles ridden. The two riders dreamed of California, but they wouldn’t make it on this trip.

Last year, senior Jesse Lee, two other Elon students, a student from Appalachian State and one from Virginia Tech created an environmentally friendly, solar-powered tandem tricycle (trike). Their plan was to ride from North Carolina to California to show that alternative energy does work and to raise money for schools in Sri Lanka.

The project is called “Trivelo;” “tri” for tricycle and the thread of three throughout the project (three wheels, approximately three week ride), “protelo” meaning to lead and “novus” meaning new. Although the Trivelo Project also counts as Lee’s Leadership Fellow and Periclean Scholars capstone project, he said it wasn’t designed that way.

“I didn’t want it to be hindered, I wanted to let it evolve into what it would and if it retrofit within those guidelines, which it does, fantastic,” he said. “But I don’t think it would’ve been right to do it any other way. You don’t want it to become another thing to cross off the list.”

Lee and his team didn’t make it to California due to mechanical problems, but they did put some impressive mileage behind them.

“All together, we rode from Kitty Hawk, N.C. to the mouth of Wilson, Va., where we had to stop,” Lee said. “Our motor had overheated and broken. Our pedaling shaft was also broken.”

Lee and fellow rider Tommy Ausherman, a senior at Appalachian State, pulled over to the side of the road in Va. to decide what to do.

“It was late and it got dark,” Lee said. “And we were taking wires apart and trying to find out what was wrong.”

Lee said a man from the town walked by and offered them a place to stay for the night. The next day they tried to fix the trike.

“We looked at ourselves and said, ‘Okay, do we want to keep going, push forward even though we know our equipment is really struggling with the conditions we’re putting it through, or turn back to Charlotte, N.C. and have to look at everybody and say we didn’t quite make it,’” Lee said.

To help make the decision, Lee said he tore out a page in his journal and he and Ausherman wrote what they wanted to do on separate pieces.

“We both wrote down that we wanted to keep going, to see this through; we wanted to see California,” he said. “I still have those papers because they’re really special to me.”

The boys then tried to go down the driveway and the trike’s motor wouldn’t start.

“We realized our decision was made for us,” Lee said. “When we were just sitting on that farm and having to decide to keep going or not — it was the hardest decision I ever made, I would say.”

The trike’s creation

Six students planned the project over a ninth month period, where six months were spent on building the trike, Lee said. Ausherman, a student at App. State, Daniel Rhyne, a graduate from App. State, Christian Probst, a senior from VA. Tech., and Lee constructed the trike at Belmont Textile Machinery Inc. in Charlotte, N.C.

Lee met several of the trike’s builders through a renewable energy course he shadowed at Alamance County Community College in the fall of 2009.

“I was sort of throwing out ideas to (the professor), just crazy designs,” Lee said.

The professor put Lee in touch with Ausherman, who was friends with Rhyne and Probst. Elon junior David Munoz also shadowed the course with Lee.

Ausherman, Rhyne and Probst brought technical knowledge and the history of making electric trikes, according to Lee. Lee said he filled the creative role of bringing ideas to the table, bringing different lights to the design aspect and handling the marketing and fundraising. Elon senior Molly Schreiber and Munoz were influential in getting the idea of the trike off the ground into something that could actually be made, according to Lee.

“It was a perfect combination of people that were able to come together,” Lee said. “We all had a little bit of knowledge in different areas.”

Lee said solar power was used because it doesn’t have to be maintained a lot.

“It’s just up there and it does it,” he said. “You don’t have to … worry about a lot of moving parts. It’s convenient.”

Biking for social change

The ride was important for Lee because it reaffirmed that renewable energy was what he wanted to study, he said. He came into Elon undecided and chose that he wanted to study the environment.

The decision to make a “green” trike and ride across the country was twofold, Lee said. He wanted to raise the awareness of alternative energy transportation and raise money for a school in Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan connection is through Elon’s Periclean Scholars project for the Class of 2011. Lee and Schreiber are both Periclean Scholars.

“We want to buy them new roofing, laboratory supplies and recycling bins,” Lee said. “This will all sort of fall into our environmental summit which is happening this Jan. Several of us in Periclean Scholars will be flying there to hand out equipment.”

Lee said he is hoping to go with the scholars, funds permitting.

Connecting to people and self along the ride

Lee and Ausherman manned the trip solo. “We had no support car,” Lee said. “We had all the materials and our gear with us in the trike.”

He said that became a hindrance because it added extra weight and probably contributed to the mechanical breakdowns. But it also was for the best because they had to depend more on people, he said.

“We did a lot of picking a town on the map and said we want to get there by tonight and find a place to camp out,” Lee said.

Time and time again people would let them stay in their houses, community centers or churches.

“The people that we met along the way were by far the best part of the trip,” Lee said. “Fantastically giving and generous people.”

Lee said that everyone they met was interested in why they were doing the ride and what the trike was.

“We pulled into one town … and it looked like it was getting really dark, going to storm,” he said. “We didn’t have a place to stay that night and the trike couldn’t get wet. We saw a guy standing outside his house and asked (if we could put the trike under his car port).”

Lee and Ausherman then tried to find a bite to eat, but everything was closed, Lee said. As they were walking back to the man’s house, the man was walking up the main street, saw them and lit up.

“He said, ‘Hey guys, you better come back to your trike. You got a whole welcome party.’ There were 10 or 12 people standing around. They made us dinner and let us stay in the firehouse for the night. It really just lifted our spirits up. We couldn’t have asked them to do any more.”

Lee said the was also able to disprove a misconception.

“People sort of think you can’t hitch-hike anymore,” he said. “Especially with cars whizzing by you, not knowing where you’re going to sleep that night, on a vehicle that you built (that) doesn’t come with airbags … But you can, sort of, if you come at it with the right attitude. I think there are a lot of people out there that I blanketed with the attitude of, ‘they’re strangers and so they’re someone to be avoided and you should try to be self-sufficient if you can.’ But it was real special to me and to have those people be a part of our lives and a part of our memory of that and the reverse of it as well for us to be a blip in their memory.”

Finishing the ride

The reason the motor and pedaling shaft broke is because they were both overworked when Lee and Ausherman rode over mountains, Lee said. The mountains were too much for the motor they had chosen, Lee said.

He said they are making improvements on the trike, including a new motor and pedaling shaft “and a lot of other design changes to make it more powerful, more efficient and more fun,” he said.
The motor they are putting in is one that is consistently used on single-person trikes and is bulletproof, according to Lee said.

“We’re going to do some serious testing this winter, we’re going to take it out to the Blue Ridge Mountains,” Lee said. “Once we’re sure of that we’re going to design another ride, we’re not exactly sure what that means. It will definitely happen and it will definitely be challenging.”

There are also other ideas on the backburner, Lee said. He wants to make changes to solo trikes and redesign a bike from the ground up, he said. He will continue working with solar power, he said.

Lee said it’s always a learning process.

“I could think that I know everything about building a trike like this but there’s always something new,” he said. “And I don’t think it would be exciting if there wasn’t … that’s what grabs me about it. You can be creative, take it in a new direction.”

It’s all about “finding the limits, if there are any,” he said.