A rickshaw motoring down a busy, bumpy street in Mumbai and an old VW Van taking the hairpin turns around the Oregon coast have something in common — an Ashland inventor.
Brett Belan is giving a new life to both rickshaw and van, cell phone and house lights through his discovery of improved components to outfit them both with renewable energy.
“We’re making the components more efficient. After four years in a place we call 'the dungeon' under the Red Zone, we have six products we’re manufacturing now,” says Belan, looking part surfer, part off-grid wizard in his small space with five engineers creating new ways to bring solar power components to mostly third-world countries who need off-grid possibilities.
“We’re making a bigger difference in the world this way. We’re offering longer battery life for phones and lights to countries where people need this.”
Belan says they are doing quite a bit of work in India where rickshaws are being outfitted with solar energy and the components to make them more efficient. “The children couldn’t breathe because pollution is so bad. This allows the country a cleaner source of energy and allows people to make a living more easily.”
The inventor began Apparent Energy in Ashland with partner Hani Henri Hajje, who was living off-grid in Northern California near Belan when the partnership formed.
In addition to creating innovations for Indian rickshaw builders and companies like Selco that need solar sources for lights and cell phones in third world countries, Belan has created a solar-powered van which he’s driven up and down the West Coast to some acclaim.
He’s been featured in “Mother Earth News” for the invention, which uses four 300-watt solar panels mounted to the roof. He says the panels are attached to batteries to power the electric motor. “It handles pretty well and the battery is in front of the back wheels and, without the engine, it’s still pretty light.”
Belan says while the national recognition is good, he really hopes to be seen in Southern Oregon and attract support. “We’re hiring people in Ashland and bringing the business back here. We’re really hoping for support in our community to do more.”
His inventions began with a fairly simple idea.
“I always wanted an electric vehicle. My wife and family lived off grid. We couldn’t see the usefulness in plugging into the wall and a coal-powered plant.”
The van is his love child and he hopes to create more of them. “It took me two years for the first one. I could do one in a month now,” he says. But Belan says the money is in the components he’s making, right now. They recently secured a contract with international tractor maker, TaTa.
“This engineering company is focusing on making this more and more possible by making the controllers more and more efficient. If you have the right controllers you get every bit of energy because it makes it viable.”
Still he gets sentimental about his side work of solar vans and one day hopes to expand that aspect. “I would want to put a business together and kick out 10 of them a year. They’re useful, fun and in demand.”
He says he learned a lot after making the first one. "I’m into phase two with twice the performance and a 100-mile range. That’s going to happen. I want to get the word out. I’m looking for financial backing.”
The inventor says it could be done for as little as $10,000 to 15,000 per van if you already have the vehicle, but he’s not creating a hobbyist model. Belan plans to create reasonably priced but fully functioning and up-to-date solar vehicles. He sees the possibilities everywhere. “I go past the post office and see those little vehicles sitting there through much of the day and think, we could put some panels on them and create an efficient system.”
Belan stays relentlessly on track, repeating the fact that many have missed: it’s all about the components. “Unless you have the right controller it doesn’t work the way it needs to. The components don’t exist anywhere else. I’m trying to bridge the gap.”
So he and his team keep pumping out and inventing higher efficiency components for solar power which are being shipped around the world, but ultimately he wants to see his market expand to the same place where his inventions are made.
“I want to contribute to this community. We would be the team to support clean, efficient solar energy here.”
— Email Ashland freelance writer Julie Akins at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/@julieakins.