Maker Faire: SolarPump Electric Charging Station interview

Energy & Sustainability
Maker Faire: SolarPump Electric Charging Station interview

MFBA150.gifThere is no end to the awesome innovations that will be on display at this year’s Maker Faire Bay Area, the world’s largest DIY festival, taking place at the San Mateo Fairgrounds on May 22nd and 23rd. One of the new green energy projects to be on display (and in use!) is Austin-based Sol Design Lab‘s SolarPump Electric Charging Station, pictured above at this year’s Coachella Music Festival. We caught up with Beth Ferguson, Sol Design Lab’s founding director, designer, educator for a seven-question interview. Here’s what Beth had to say.

1. Tell us about the project you’re bringing to Maker Faire.
The SolarPump Electric Charging Station is an urban intervention; it is designed to help people re-imagine the future of transportation by showcasing solar electric charging stations as part of the future for carbon-free cities, leaving gas mobility as a thing of the past. Imagine turning the corner and instead of your local gas station and convenience store, people are playing music and charging their electric bicycles and cellphones at a solar-powered charging station, while lounging in the shade of the solar roof on furniture made from recycled street signs.

SolarPump face-w.jpg

The SolarPump, our first charging station, combines the adaptive reuse of an American car culture symbol (a 1950s Citgo gas pump) with an interactive system harnessing solar energy to charge electric bikes and mobile electronics. The station has standard outlets, so anyone can walk up and charge a cellphone, laptop, or even an electric bike or scooter. The power comes from solar panels on the roof of the station, so there’s no charge for charging. The 1950s gas pumps provide a retro-future look that catches the public’s eye and twists the concept of “fill-up station.” The face of the gas pump has an LED digital display, to indicate solar panel voltage, power output (to the inverter), and battery bank voltage, designed by Dann Green of 4ms Pedals.

The SolarPump station setup at Maker Faire this year will have 2 deep-cycle 100AH 12V batteries creating a 24V system. An 1100W inverter supplies standard 110V AC power to the user through a GFCI outlet (including a big red Emergency Stop button!). Three bi-facial Sanyo solar panels charge the batteries through a Morningstar charge controller. We used the Pentametrix system to read the shunts and voltages, and then send that data digitally over RS-232 to the custom digital display module.

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The crew setting up their first charging station at SXSW 2010. From left to right: Dallas, Beth, Rick, Maverick, Dann, Sachi, and Christie.

Driving an electric bicycle instead of a car improves air quality and can be recharged using renewable energy. Electric bicycles require no license, no insurance, and no registration fees. Infrastructure to incorporate electric vehicles and renewable energy into our urban landscape is essential to establishing an accessible and affordable carbon-free form of transportation. This project has been a collaboration between design/fabricators Beth Ferguson, Dallas Swindle, Richard Mansfield, Dann Green, Sachi DeCou, and Maverick Solar, and is supported by Austin’s South by Southwest Music Festival, the University of Texas at Austin, Austin Energy, and the Time Harkness Fund for Invention.

2. How did you hear about Maker Faire and why did you decide to participate?
I first heard about Maker Faire from seeing MAKE magazine a few years ago and then participating in the Austin Maker Faire. I really like the idea of bringing invention and makers out into the public, and the concept of the citizen designer.

3. Tell us about yourself. How did you get started making things and who are your inspirations?
I got started making things as a kid at summer camp in Maine and with my parents, who love to build boats and fix things. As a teenager I was always making pottery, photography, jewelry, puppets, and murals. In college I studied ecological design, and it became a way to combine my interest in problem solving and the environment. The design process has been a great way to learn the importance of design iterations, model making, and the excitement in fabricating your own projects.

Currently my design interests and practice aim to inspire action in the viewer by highlighting things previously overlooked and by creating strategies that assist communities in planning for urban sustainability. I work in a range of areas, including digital and industrial ecological design, community bicycle programs, and green map-making. Constant themes in my work include solutions to climate change, urban sustainability, and ecological education. I have collaborated with solar engineers, architects, electric bike companies, fabricators, South by Southwest, Austin Energy, and University of Texas faculty and students to problem solve and design solar charging station prototypes.

Artist/Designers I like: London-based designer Ross Lovegrove, known for his organically formed lighting designs, has created one of my favorite public solar LED streetlights.

Design and architecture firm, Ecosistema Urbano, in Madrid, Spain, has made three solar-powered Air Tree pavilions as part of their innovative public space Eco Boulevard project. The idea is that the moveable structures will provide shade, climate control, and plants to a public space without trees, and be taken down once the real trees have grown along the bare boulevard.

Artist Natalie Jeremijenko’s “The Environmental Health Clinic” provides interesting take on the traditional university health clinic to look at external environmental problems instead of the patient’s internal physical health.

4. Is your project strictly a hobby or a budding business? Does it relate to your day job?
My current project, the SolarPump, started as a Design grad school thesis project and has turned into a new design company/nonprofit called Sol Design Lab, mixed with design education and event touring… yes, it’s now my day job!

5. What new idea (in or outside of your field) has excited you most recently?
I am really interested in how designers and urban planners can help commuters shift from gas powered to electric vehicles and renewable energy. Public art incorporating solar panels is popping up on urban streets, in the form of flowers, trees, sculptures, street furniture, street lighting, and innovative roof designs. Ecological designers are looking for the balance between their conceptual metaphors, energy production, forms, efficiency, outdoor security, and material choices. The placement of functioning solar art in public places serves as a springboard for conversations about good design and renewable energy.

6. What is your motto?
“When I am working on a problem I never think about beauty. I only think about how to solve the problem. But when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong.” —Buckminster Fuller

7. What advice would you give to the young makers out there just getting started?
• Explore different mediums and forms that your ideas could take.
• Apprentice with makers who inspire you.
• Take workshops and classes.
• Research/test your ideas on paper, make different iterations, use digital design programs, and make models.
• Collaborate with people what can help your ideas grow.
• Using recycled materials and asking for donations can take your project far.

Thanks, Beth! Be sure to check out the SolarPump Electric Charging Station when your devices run low on juice at Maker Faire Bay Area this year. You can still get discounted tickets until May 12. For all the information you need, head over to the Maker Faire website.

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I'm a word nerd who loves to geek out on how emerging technology affects the lexicon. I was an editor on the first 40 volumes of MAKE, and I love shining light on the incredible makers in our community. In particular, covering art is my passion — after all, art is the first thing most of us ever made. When not fawning over perfect word choices, I can be found on the nearest mountain, looking for untouched powder fields and ideal alpine lakes.

Contact me at or via @snowgoli.

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