The request to fulfil the role of official Spokesperson for the 2018 Sasol Solar Challenge brought about an exciting thrill that would later represent the experience of the eight day energy and mobility expedition across South Africa. The experience was a balanced opportunity to create awareness of the possibilities of energy transition for mobility while demonstrating how science, technology, engineering and mathematics can be applied to create a sustainable difference in the transport sector amongst others. The involvement of the Low- Carbon Transport Project team enabled the achievement of greater public education through collaborative efforts of various partners that contributed towards the success of this acclaimed event.
On the day before the official kick-off of the Sasol Solar challenge, The Sun Square Arena buzzed with excitement from scholars and professionals who embarked on an early start to the day to view the work of solar car builders and racers from a number of countries world-wide. Stepping into the exhibition hall, a dark blue dimmed atmosphere with stage lights bouncing off the visible solar arrays on some of the cars was very inviting to say the least.
Attracted by a bright pink sports-type solar car, we began our journey of engaging with teams about their cars. Made from the scrap metal of an actual race car, City University of Hong Kong, as they introduced themselves, had a small team of 3 members attending to their car at the time and were very enthusiastic about sharing the trials and triumphs in the journey that got their car to the exhibition floor that morning. Their story brought us to the realisation of the challenge this event was. Their car was noticeably shaped like most high performance vehicles and was different from the other solar cars which where seemingly designed to be lighter in weight and with advantageous aerodynamics. We later found out that they had entered in a class of their own (sustainability-fleet) to demonstrate solar power energy use for conventional mobility tools, much like the vehicles we are used to seeing on our roads every day.
An open solar car with the South African flag flexed out on its sides brought about intrigue and curiosity of how the local teams had prepared for the challenge. The open cockpit of this solar car attracted many visitors. I remember peering my head through a small crowd to hear the voice that was explaining the parts of the car being viewed. I managed to catch the attention of one of the drivers from the Tshwane University of Technology and remember asking him to explain why everything was located in the car the way it was, it was then that we learned about driver weight balance with the energy storage batteries, designing a vehicle for aerodynamic purposes, and messaging strategies between drivers and support teams, etc. It was at this point that I realised that we were in for one of the most energy efficient and exciting times of our professional lives.
Fascinated by the amount of team work and communication that goes into participating in such an event, a raw of voices turned our attention to a bright orange mass of people carrying their solar car and shuffling in unison to reposition it. Their solar panels were noticeably smaller than those of the other teams, the array of panels was tilted up and you could see each team member of the Nuon Solar Team assuming each of their roles like a machine operating with great efficiency. I was genuinely surprised at their ability to lift the car, not knowing that we would witness them (and their close competitors – Tokai from Japan) lifting the car with the driver in it at every stop of the eight day adventure to Stellenbosch, Cape Town. This visual echoed the importance of having a light weight vehicle for this kind of technology shared with us in an earlier conversation.
The start line was a publicly appreciated affair. The Mayor of the City of Tshwane, crowds of passersby that came to a halt and solar car enthusiasts that gathered to send the teams off in the capital city was quite impressive and reflected the influence and impact the event has built in its ten years of existence. We witnessed teams that had a smooth start, some who used man-power to push their cars onto the stretch of road that represented the designated start, while others were still busy with mechanical work on their cars to enable them to officially start the Solar challenge. With support vehicles trailing behind each solar car, a grand convoy headed towards Sasolburg and Kroonstad for the first control and overnight stops formed.
Arriving at the first control and loop stops in Sasolburg, we were welcomed by the bright faces of scholars that were being occupied by the educational activities and entertainment from the Gig-rig, an interactive truck that converts into a stage to engage school children, teachers and interested community members about the Sasol Solar Challenge along the way. The Gig-rig was used to bring the message of the challenge home to every young individual taking up the afore-mentioned critical subjects at school and at University. As the cars arrived one at a time, I had my first opportunity to interview one of the leading drivers about their experience on the road. Sounding very enthusiastic, he responded optimistically about the rest of the journey ahead. Just hours later, a storm in Kroonstad saw the first day of the challenge fast become a nightmare for teams- one team had their cockpit fly right off while still on the road to accumulate kilometres, of course this meant that their car had to be trailered to the stop for the night. The rest of the teams lost their tents to strong winds and ended up being accommodated in a school hall for that first night. I was impressed by their focus and determination to rise up, recharge and journey on the following day.
As the convoy continued, days were not the same for any of the teams participating in the challenge. The same teams leaving a certain stops, being cheered on by locals in varying towns, could be seen either stuck on the side of the road or being trailered to the next town to conduct mechanical work on their cars that would enable them to get back on the tar to clock in some kilometres. Between stops, the media van (which we travelled in for 8 days) was buzzing with preparations for TV and radio interviews in each of the local towns. If we weren’t catching up on the leader board and occurrences on the road as the teams chased the sun, we were chasing radio frequencies and phone signals to create public awareness and to ensure that locals knew we were on the way to their local town.
By the time we got halfway through the experience the Spirit of Ubuntu could be felt by how well everyone was relating to one another, a traditional ‘monkey dance’ at the end of each leg encouraged everyone to let their guard down, shake off the trials and to freely celebrate the triumphs of each day. Team members, journalists, challenge officials, emergency personnel, and community members of all ages could be seen jubilantly stomping away in a sea of people causing a dust storm from jumping up and down to the traditional rave-like beat. I unregrettably broke a shoe in that crowd at some point because I thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to celebrate the small victories of each day.
Other highlights included receiving the opportunity to wave the flag over each of the teams at the start line in Bloemfontein on Heritage day; A warm welcome from an excited mass of children waving country and team flags in Kareedouw, Eastern Cape, they captured our hearts when they performed the ‘monkey dance’ to show teams just how serious they were about following the challenge; We reached the Southernmost point of Africa on solar energy while extending the distance covered by solar cars participating in the Sasol Solar Challenge in previous years.
Other highlights included receiving the opportunity to wave the flag over each of the teams at the start line in Bloemfontein on Heritage Day; a warm welcome from an excited mass of children waving country and team flags in Kareedouw, Eastern Cape, as they captured our hearts when they performed the ‘monkey dance’ to show teams just how serious they were about following the challenge. We reached the Southernmost point of Africa on solar energy while extending the distance covered by solar cars participating in the Sasol Solar Challenge in previous years.
The finish line was another exhilarating experience. I was live on social media giving real-time updates on each team’s performance as the each arrived at the finish in Stellenbosch. The energy of team members spiked up resembling the excitement of day one. Bright smiles, tried and tested solar cars, champagne showers and celebratory embraces were the order of the day. We all had a deep sense of accomplishment to acknowledge.
The 2018 Sasol Solar Challenge enabled us to take the message of our work out of the boardroom and into the streets of South Africa. Technology is rapidly advancing and allowing industry leaders to start exploring ways of solving the challenges currently faced in our energy and transport sectors. Demonstrations are a powerful way of showcasing innovations and improvements to existing technologies in order to inform policy and the implementation of sustainable solutions.
Encouraging tomorrow’s leaders to take up science, technology, engineering and mathematics in school today has the potential to close skills gaps and ensure continuity in the generational work started by experts in industry today. The Sasol Solar Challenge is instrumental to identifying, building and launching the participants of the Challenge who grow to make significant contributions in bringing solutions to the tables of key organisations globally.
The tremendous growth of this event every other year it has been successfully hosted, has us eagerly awaiting the 2020 challenge.