In 1983, Hans Tholstrup, an adventurer, crossed the Australian continent west to east in an early solar-powered vehicle. Two years later, the Swiss Tour de Sol was inaugurated. Mr. Tholstrup subsequently organized the World Solar Challenge; a 2000 mile trans-Australia race for solar-only vehicles. That first WSC race, held in 1987, was won by the General Motors entry, Sunraycer.
A second World Solar Challenge was held in November, 1990. There are now annually over thirty solar car rallies and competitions worldwide and the number and quality are increasing rapidly, with the World Solar Challenge being the premier championship race. The outlook is exceptional due to the increasing interest in electric vehicles, especially in Europe and Japan. The competitions attract much media attention because the cars are exotic-looking, press the limits of alternative transportation technology, and inspire a public concerned with energy conservation.
In 1989, Konawaena High School responded to a statewide solar car competition by forming a team of students, faculty and community advisors. Using a $12,000 grant from the State of Hawaii, the team designed and built two full-scale mockups and a final lightweight composite vehicle. The final vehicle cost was under $13,000, including $6000 for solar cells. This vehicle, at only 320 pounds, handily won the three and one half day state race against five other schools. As a result of that victory, the State of Hawaii provided funds for the team to enter the World Solar Challenge, a 2000 mile race from Darwin to Adelaide, Australia, considered by many to be the premier solar car competition in the world.
The 1990 race in Australia attracted thirty-eight corporate, high school,
and university entries from around the world, including the University
of Michigan and Western Washington University. Konawaenas team was the
only U.S. high school entry. Components on the Konawaena car were necessarily
inexpensive (e.g. -- $200 PM motor, heavy lead acid car batteries, etc.),
yet the engineering of the chassis (2nd lightest in the field and minimal
frontal area) proved successful as the team took 18th place overall and
the World Champion high school division, being the first high school to
ever officially finish the World Solar Challenge.
After the Australia success, the team was invited to appear on national television (Good Morning America, CNN) and in the center of the New York Auto Show alongside the best solar racers in the world, but sufficient funding was not available. During the summer of 1991, the team competed favorable in the Swiss Tour de Sol, a six day solar/electric event through four countries.
In 1993, the Konawaena Solar Car Team reemerged after a rebuilding year to develop a new vehicle and a new mission. In preparation for the return to Australia to defend the high school title, the team set out a goal to build a new vehicle and travel across the continental United States, and be the first high school solar vehicle to do so. After soliciting private funding from the Kailua-Kona community, the group built a stronger, lighter, and more powerful solar vehicle and packed the vehicle up to send to Los Angeles, where the students rebuilt the car and started the cross-country trek. Forty-one days later, after traversing the Rockies and Appalachains, as well as the flood-stricken Midwest, the car reached the Atlantic coast at Lewes, Delaware, becoming the first such vehicle to do so. Along the way, the team participated in local educational efforts, visited members of the U.S. Congress and Senate, and appeared on local and national television.
Following the return to Hawaii, a lack of funding and the graduation
of several key members of the team halted attempts to retain the high school
World Championship. Though the major functions have temporarily been halted,
the team remains strong, with several students developing improvements
and plans for new vehicles and opportunities to demonstrate concepts in
environmental preservation. As a result of the efforts of the team and
their founding advisor, Bill Woerner, Kona welcomed the West Hawaii Explorations
Academy to the community, which provided alternative educational opportunities
for students wishing to become involved in science based projects. The
team has also gained notoriety as the stimulous for the fictional movie
"Race the Sun," released in 1996, and as one of the initiators of the West
Hawaii Explorations Academy, in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii. Also noteworthy are
the individual efforts and recognitions of the members and advisors of
the team, including team advisor Bill Woerner's selection as Hawaii Science
Teacher of the Year by the National Science Teachers Association.