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Southern California Students Harness the Power of Solar

Sullivan Solar Power

Solar power floats the boat-literally-of the Southern California high school students that have started competing in the 2014 Solar Cup. The annual program, sponsored by the Los Angeles-based Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, is the nation's largest solar-powered boat competition.

"It gives Southland high school students hands-on lessons in engineering, math, science, renewable resources and environmental education and communication, and informs them and their families about the sources of California's drinking water and the continuing need for conservation," said Jeffrey Kightlinger, the water district's general manager, in a statement. Students from 48 high schools in Los Angeles, Riverside, Orange, San Diego, San Bernardino, and Ventura counties have already begun the seven-month-long march to the final competition, which will be held May 16-18 at Lake Skinner near Temecula in Riverside County. About 800 students, and their teachers, will vie to see who can build the best solar-powered boat as determined by the winners of sprint and endurance races.

The Metropolitan water district provides each team with a kit and tools to build their boat as well as technical advice from Adrian Hightower, an assistant engineering professor at Harvey Mudd College, and college-level engineering students. School teams are sponsored by their local water district, which provides between $2,500 and $4,000 for the students to equip their boat with solar power systems. The boats are 16 feet long, and the solar panels, batteries, and motors on each boat can generate up to 320 watts. Maximum boat weight is 450 pounds, which includes the boat's driver. Each team not only has to build a boat, but also must create a water-conservation public service message and write three technical reports.

During the final competition in May, boats can sail in 200-meter sprint races, using solar power collected in the boat's batteries. The boats in the endurance challenge rely on solar panels for power, and the winner is determined by who can complete the most laps of the 1.6-kilometer course during two 90-minute heats.

In addition to teaching the students about the importance of renewable resources, the Solar Cup has another added benefit, according to Metropolitan's Kightlinger. "Along the way, Solar Cup also has encouraged many participants to attend college and to pursue careers in engineering, science, environmental issues and communication."

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