Flagstaff engineer finds new use for solar energy

Flagstaff, AZ – Host intro:
Flagstaff engineer Jim Corning is passionate about two things: solar power and motorcycles. So he decided to build a solar-powered, electric bike. It's one of only six in the United States. Most electric bikes are pretty slow. But this one gets up to a hundred miles per hour. Arizona Public Radio's Laurel Morales saw first hand how fast it goes.

SFX: Sound of motorcycle

That's Jim Corning taking off from his log cabin home east of Flagstaff. He stands out on his futuristic, cherry red creation. Under his silver helmet all you can see is his handlebar mustache. The adrenalin is still pumping when he gets off the bike.

CORNING: (helmet on) I've been riding motorcycles since I was 15 and you're just used to having an engine running between your knees. Here you are cruising along at highway speeds and none of what a life of experience tells ya should be happening is happening. And it's workin. It seems almost magical at first.

That magic took a year and a half to perfect. He tried several different types of batteries and body styles before he came up with this model.

Corning designs airplanes and his experience with aerodynamic design helped make this bike more efficient. He used his wife's old Kowasaki motorcycle frame, fiberglass and a lithium iron phosphate battery.

CORNING: It was just really sweet I still get a kick out of cruising on that highway with just the whine of the motor at high speed and no exhaust really nothing else going on just the wind noise and that whine.

The motorcycle will go 40 miles before it needs to be recharged.

CORNING: To recharge (snap snap) I've got an onboard charger in this little space back here. And I can uncoil the extension cord and it just plugs into a standard 110 volt outlet like so.
That's it?
That's it.

Unlike most electric vehicles Corning charges his with solar photovoltaic panels, so his bike has zero impact on the environment. It takes about four hours to recharge.

Ironically on this day the sun isn't shining so we use the solar panels as shelter from the rain.

MORALES: The one time it rains in Flagstaff (laughs).
CORNING: I know this is so rare for this time of year. (laughter) Oh my.

His gauges tell him the panels are producing 300 watts of electricity even in these cloudy conditions. If it were sunny it would be making 25-hundred watts.

Corning installs solar panels and teaches people how to do it themselves. It cost him about 10 thousand dollars after rebates and tax credits to install his system.

CORNING: I would say most of our customers feel strongly about reducing their carbon footprint and they're willing to lay out a significant investment to accomplish that. Here in Arizona they're replacing relatively inexpensive power. We all get the satisfaction that nobody's burning coal or splitting atoms on our behalf but the pay out's really, really long.

That pay out could be shorter if people use their panels to power not only their home but also their vehicle.

CORNING: Now you're competing with oil companies the price of gas was $4/gallon a year ago it's down now but who knows what it will be next year.

Not only is it cost saving but it's clean. Even though they consume less fuel, an average motorcycle is 10 times more polluting per mile than a regular gas powered car or even light SUV, according to the California Air Resources Board.

Corning's next project will be a two-seater motorcycle so he and his wife can ride together. He plans to give that one more juice so they can make it at least a hundred miles before they need to recharge.

For Arizona Public Radio I'm Laurel Morales in Flagstaff.