(Fort Myers News-Press) By Dave Breitenstein -- Geraghty Anne Ellis is 15 and doesn't yet possess a driver's license, but Saturday she was zipping around FGCU's campus with no fear of being pulled over by police.
Ellis drove Bishop Verot High School's solar go-kart like an experienced driver, likely because she's been involved in autocross racing for the past year. Saturday's competition, though, featured 11 high schools from across South Florida using nothing but solar energy to race around FGCU'S 2-mile campus loop.
"I didn't think it would be able to go as fast as it did," Ellis said.
Reaching speeds up to 30 mph, teams competed in a two-lap speed race and four-lap relay race. It's the second time FGCU sponsored the races, and this time the university created extra solar-themed exercises for elementary and middle school students.
Joseph Simmons, director of FGCU's Renewable Energy Institute, said he's been encouraged by the development of green technologies, but is optimistic about the future of solar energy. Once engineers design panels that capture more energy, and improve battery storage capabilities, the possibilities are endless.
"There are more innovations that can be done," Simmons said. "Solar is ripe for that."
Simmons said he's conversed with faculty at Boise State University in Idaho, which wants to send two teams to next year's competition at FGCU.
Environmental sustainability has been a component of FGCU's mission since its founding, and solar has led the way. The university maintains a 15-acre solar farm that supplies a good chunk of energy for three campus buildings.
The university provided high schools with go-karts and solar panels, but didn't give any pointers on how to design their vehicles.
"We gave them the components, but there is a lot of learning in terms of how they wire the batteries, the motor and the solar panels," said FGCU provost Ron Toll. "This is real practical experience. They can create, they can build, they can innovate and it's fun."
Trial and error was big for Bishop Verot's team. Ellis said her team continuously made design adjustments to speed up their go-kart.
"You really have to test in between every change so that you can see what you've improved upon and what you made slower so you can go back and fix it," Ellis said.
Jayson Pereira, 17, said his experience with solar energy was limited.
"When we started our project, I knew nothing at all," said Pereira, a junior at North Fort Myers High. "I was clueless."
So he did some research, lots of it, and learned how much damage combustion engines can do to the atmosphere. He's now a believer in solar technology, and hopes researchers can continue exploring ways to capture the free, endless source of energy.
East Lee County High did not enter the go-kart challenge last year, so Saturday was the school's first venture into solar-powered vehicles. Teacher Jerriel Filler and students only had a few days to assemble and test their vehicle, which topped out at a relatively turtle-like 12 mph.
"Just to be here and finish was a success," Filler said. "Now the kids will go back and try to make it better and faster."