Going the Distance on Solar Power
Sarah Noll, a ComEd business analyst, is passionate about racing solar cars, but her journey on the track was not always smooth.
Sarah fell in love with racing solar cars while studying renewable energy at Illinois State University. She joined its Solar Car Team and successfully participated in solar car races across the country. But in the summer of 2014, Sarah and her team prepared for the chance to compete internationally in the five-day Abu Dhabi Solar Challenge. With the lowest budget of any team, Sarah and her team knew they already had a steep road ahead. Then disaster struck. During a race at the formula one track in Austin, Texas, the batteries of their fifth-generation solar car caught fire.
“We could only salvage the top of the car,” Noll recalls.
The team was now racing against time, since they had to ship their completed car to Abu Dhabi by November.
“We had only three months to totally revamp a fourth-generation car instead,” Noll says.
The fourth-generation car had many structural differences—three wheels instead of four, a different motor—that required a wiring overhaul and other repairs. They scrambled to assemble it, eventually shipping it to Abu Dhabi by boat to get it there in time. Despite their setbacks, the Solar Car Team managed to complete the Abu Dhabi Solar Challenge. This accomplishment was no mean feat, as it included a qualifying round and a three-day race covering 745 miles through the desert.
According to Sarah, long distances are typical of solar car races.
“A solar race is about efficiency rather than speed,” she says. “While gas-powered cars race for only a few hours, solar races can last 8 hours. There are no breaks to refuel. But if you know the [solar] car well, the batteries can charge when you accelerate.”
Sarah says she wants solar technology to extend beyond the racetrack into our everyday lives.
“I hope that one day I can drive a solar-powered car that I didn’t make myself,” she jokes. “Beyond that, though, I’m happy to be working at an energy company like ComEd that is committed to driving a clean energy future and jumpstarting solar energy in my home state.”
Sarah, who recalls quickly rising through the Solar Car Team’s ranks as a student to become president, offers advice to young women planning to enter the world of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math).
“I would like to see girls embrace STEM activities outside of the classroom. For most of my time in college, I was the only girl on the Solar Car Team. But I quickly became an expert in certain aspects [of building solar cars]. Just because women don’t typically do it doesn’t mean it can’t be done.”