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Brett Belan talks about using solar power for a bike. His solar-powered VW van is in the background. (Photo by Nina Egert)

Act Locally: Ashland inventor harnesses solar power to run van

It all began about 10 years ago, when singer/songwriter Brett Belan felt inspired to design a guilt-free vehicle in which to lull his infant son to sleep — one that did not consume gas while driving through the streets of rural Lake County, California, north of the Bay Area and east of Mendocino. A mechanical engineer by training, as well as a self-taught electrical engineer, Brett installed a solar panel on the roof of an electric golf cart, and — voila! — the first Solarrolla prototype was born.

Several experimental models later, a friend from Ashland saw Brett’s work and became enthralled. He invited the Belans to join him here in Oregon, so they could start a business. After developing a couple of products for their joint company, Apparent Energy, including a new type of electric motor, Brett decided to follow his true passion for designing solar-powered vehicles.

In recent months, he and his wife, Kira, have branched off with their own company, Solarrolla. Located — for now — in a former garage at 145 North Main St. (readers may have noticed their solar vans parked out in front), Brett spends his days converting existing vehicles into self-sufficient solar mobile homes, or adding solar panels to scooters, lawn mowers, and electric bikes.

Ultimately Brett wants to develop solar-powered, mobile tiny homes that generate enough electricity from their panels to drive, cook, run a heater and operate a dehydrating toilet made in Sweden. This summer Brett was commissioned to build a large RV, topped with solar panels that produce 7 kilowatts of energy, giving it a range of up to 200 miles. His vision is to construct a vehicle from the ground up that would be able to travel 400 miles per day (half of that mileage derived from the sun). But, for now, his adapted vehicles can draw about 10 miles of energy per day from the sun; additional battery power comes from plugging in at an electric charging station.

Solarrolla’s modified 1973 VW bus (the same tricked-out van that paraded down Siskiyou Boulevard on July 4) has received international attention via the internet. Numerous articles about the Belan family’s road trip have appeared in English, French, and German. Honoring Brett’s altruistic desire to share his inventions with others who want to help to save the planet, Kira has posted instructions on-line, demonstrating how individuals can convert their own vehicles to solar (go to www.solarelectricvwbus.com/home.html).

Brett is philosophical about long-term prospects for humanity. “I believe in putting solar power in the hands of people, so they can have a relationship with nature. A relationship with nature helps to slow the mind down, and this leads to health and happiness and less need for over consumption. ... I don’t believe solar panels are going to save us. But implementing them in the way that I’m implementing them — i.e., in a manner that helps people connect with sun and nature — can lead to some sort of solution … Utilizing (solar panels and electric vehicles) in complement can supply our energy needs while nourishing a more direct relationship with nature. A relationship necessary for sustainability.”

As for some concrete action points readers can take:

1. Brett recommends people meditate to heighten their creativity and to get in touch with nature.

2. My recommendation is that Ashlanders take advantage of Brett’s presence in our community and bring items to his shop for him to convert to solar. These can be rechargeable battery-run garden tools, like lawn mowers or weed-whackers, or smaller personal vehicles, like electric bicycles and scooters. (Check with Brett first about which products are viable.) For people with extensive yardwork needs, another option is to purchase his portable solar charger, and use it recharge tool batteries while working in the field. For readers who may be contemplating purchasing a gas-guzzling RV in which to camp or snowbird, consider instead having Brett adapt an existing van into a solar mobile living unit.

Brett can be reached by phone at 541-631-1168, email at Brett@solarelectricvwbus.com, on the web at www.solarelectricvwbus.com, and you can follow him on Instagram (@solarrolla).

Ashland resident, author and anthropologist Nina Egert has been a lay environmentalist since the early 1970s. Act Locally appears the first and third Mondays of the month in the Tidings.

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