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At Florida Gulf Coast University's solar-powered go-kart race, students combine sun and fun

10:15 AM, Apr 8, 2013   |    comments
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Marc Sukennikoff, 15, of Charlotte High School, completes a lap Saturday. Students from five high schools competed in their solar powered go-karts, which took months to build. (Jack Hardman/



Fort Myers, Florida (News-Press) -- Driving a solar-powered go-kart he helped build, Naples High junior Jon Baker pumped his fist and yelled at his teammates as he buzzed around the track at 30 mph.

Four other area high school go-kart teams ran in similar solar vehicles behind Baker, each painted with its school's colors. About 100 parents and children cheered the kids.

It was the type of scene FGCU renewable energy officials have been dreaming of: local residents fired up about solar energy. Naples High captured FGCU's first solar go-kart race Saturday, but the event transcended competition.

Professor Joe Simmons, who runs FGCU's renewable energy program, said the race was his program's first step in making Southwest Florida a hub for renewable energy.

FGCU, which has a solar field on campus, provided the go-karts and solar kits to each of the five area schools. FGCU wants to work with local utilities to make solar panels prevalent in the region.

"The attitude is solar is something you can only do in the Southwest. But I think we can do it in Florida," said Simmons, who taught renewable energy at the University of Arizona before coming to FGCU.

Simmons said Florida utilities have been reluctant to use solar panels because they are more interested in detachable sources of energy. Solar energy can only be used when the sun is shining.

Nevertheless, local utilities may be coming around on the topic, Simmons said. FGCU plans to host a solar networking breakfast next year. FGCU plans on inviting Gov. Rick Scott, every Florida utility and anyone else in the industry to the breakfast.

Project pride

Baker, who is part of Naples High's engineering academy, said he was stunned to learn about the powers of solar energy. His seven-member crew built a car that buried the competition Saturday. Naples' car, which had a solar panel slanted forward, even beat FGCU's solar-powered car.

Naples's kart won the speed portion of the event by traveling four laps in 9 minutes and 38 seconds. In the endurance test, Naples traveled 12 laps in the allotted 30 minutes.

"In this sunlight, our kart can last an infinite amount of time," Naples High junior Eric DeShields said. "When it gets cloudy, our car can probably last two hours."

Estero High coach Steve Fisher said his team learned about DC electricity, mechanics and gear ratios in building its kart. Estero senior Joseph Brosnan-Day said he loves cars and science so Saturday's event was perfect.

"I love trying new things," Brosnan-Day said. "It was a lot of hard work in getting our kart here and just to see it out here running is an awesome thing."

Charlotte, Dunbar, Estero, Naples and South Fort Myers high schools will be able to keep their karts, Simmons said.

Chris Umpierre, Fort Myers News-Press

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