It’s not often that a motorsports event places an emphasis on sustainability. Furthermore, the Rebelle Rally is not your average motorsports event. Instead of relying on speed, the Rebelle focuses on precise navigation.
During eight days of competition, two-person teams drive legal vehicles to about 20 checkpoints each day, all off-road and without using GPS. Teams plot latitude and longitude points on a topographic map and figure out a way to get to those control points using only analog tools: a scale ruler; a plotter to determine the course; and a compass. Checkpoints may be marked with a flag, but are often not marked at all, leaving teams to triangulate their location.
Oh, and it turns out that the Rebelle Rally is only for women.
Founder Emily Miller wanted to bring to life a motorsports challenge where women would have the opportunity to participate even with little to no experience. Now in its eighth year, the rally attracts participants from all walks of life. There are engineers, lawyers, CEOs, moms, and, yes, some racing drivers. Regardless of their profession, they all share a love of adventure and competitive spirit.
Since 2020, Rebelle has presented electric vehicles.
Since 2020, Rebelle has introduced electric vehicles. The first two years started with me piloting a Rivian R1T alongside my trusty navigator, Rebecca Donaghe. We brought the truck, but let Miller solve the problem of loading the vehicle in remote locations for over a week.
The easiest way would be to simply use a diesel generator for charging. The hardest (and best) way would be to use sustainable hydrogen to keep electric vehicles running along the way.
This is where Renewable Innovations comes into play. Founded by hydrogen industry leader Robert Mount, this Utah-based company is dedicated to bringing green energy solutions to the most isolated parts of the world. The company has developed two Mobile Energy Command (MEC) systems to supply sustainable energy to the Rebelle Rally.
The rally has two problems to solve. First, it has to supply clean energy to the countless electric vehicles competing in the event. It also has to bring sustainable energy to each of the three base camps.
To solve the first problem, Renewable Innovations built the MEC-Hydrogen or MEC-H. In 2023, there are four Rivian R1T trucks and one Ford Mustang Mach-E Rally competing that need power both at base camp and on the track. Additionally, there are four Jeep Wrangler Rubicon 4xe plug-in hybrids that can be updated nightly. The MEC-H does everything with green hydrogen.
What is green hydrogen?
Hydrogen is classified according to its extraction method. Gray hydrogen, created from natural gas, is the most common. Green hydrogen is produced by using renewable energy, usually solar or wind, to electrolyze water. When electricity is added to water, oxygen and hydrogen atoms are split without direct CO2 emissions.
Renewable Innovations brought green hydrogen from supplier Plug Power to the Rebelle Rally in a special tanker truck developed by Quantum Fuel Systems. Mount dubbed the tanker VP, or virtual pipeline, capable of transporting 800 kilograms of the sustainable element. While Mount hopes the infrastructure will expand in the future, for now, the only way to deliver hydrogen is with a diesel-powered truck, let alone take it to a remote desert location.
However, as hydrogen-powered tractor-trailers improve, the company hopes to be able to use large hydrogen fuel cell trucks as delivery vehicles, turning the whole thing into one big sustainable system.
The MEC-H is equipped with eight fuel cells, capable of producing 30 kW of power each. The hydrogen from the VP reaches the fuel cells through a stainless steel pipe, where reverse electrolysis occurs. An electrochemical process splits the proton and electron in hydrogen. The proton crosses a membrane, combines with oxygen in the atmosphere and produces water. Electrons flow around the membrane and bingo: clean electricity.
However, there is a small problem. The MEC-H is equipped with two commercial DC fast chargers, the type you’ll find at any public charging station. These chargers are designed to take AC power from the grid and convert it into DC power required by electric vehicles. Think of EVs as picky eaters that only eat chicken nuggets. These chargers take chicken (AC power from the grid) and turn it into chicken nuggets (DC power) for EVs to eat their dinner.
Think of EVs as picky eaters that only eat chicken nuggets.
To take the issue a little further back in the process, fuel cells store DC energy, but there is currently no way to connect electric vehicles directly to these fuel cells. Look, the picky eater wants Trader Joe’s chicken nuggets, not Whole Foods. So the DC power (the chicken nuggets from Whole Foods) has to go through an inverter to be converted to AC (again a whole chicken) just to be fed to the fast chargers and switched. back to DC (the requisite chicken nuggets from Trader Joe’s) and to electric vehicles.
Mount estimates that the current exchange process generates between 4 and 8 percent energy loss. He says he hopes to build chargers that can accept DC power by next year.
Fuel cells can also send power to a battery bank, bringing the total amount of energy stored on board to 560 kW. When everything is running at full capacity, the fuel cells produce about 15 gallons of deionized drinking water per hour.
Getting water in and out, charging thirsty electric vehicles while in a remote location – that’s what Miller has always wanted and what Renewable Innovations has done.
A portable eco-friendly charging station
Between the two commercial chargers there are three CSS sockets and one CHAdeMo. Each charger can deliver 180 kW of electricity, splitting it between the two ports as needed. The MEC-H also features three Level 2 chargers that provide 6kW of power, perfect for charging plug-in hybrids overnight.
The MEC-H is used at base camps, but sometimes hits the road to charge vehicles if competitors have an extra long stage, which can be up to 400 kilometers (249 miles). While most electric vehicles can certainly go full range on a single charge on the pavement, range decreases when the tires hit the ground.
But what happens if an electric vehicle runs out of charge in a place the MEC-H can’t reach? That’s when the BEV recovery vehicle gets its turn in the sun. This special forces Polaris side-by-side is equipped with 15kWh of charging capacity and a 5kW inverter. It currently operates as a Level 1 charger, capable of five miles of charging in about an hour. However, Renewable Innovations plans to upgrade soon. Still, competitors better not run out of electrons in the field. It may be a long wait to start again.
However, the MEC-H only solves the problem of charging electric vehicles. The three base camps, or BCs, are the home away from home for competitors, media and staff and require enormous amounts of power to operate. There are multimedia computers to power, water to heat the showers and a fully equipped kitchen that must feed the 256 employees and competitors twice a day. Here, the MEC-S saves the day and, you guessed it, the S stands for solar.
Photo by Regine Trias / Rebelle Rally
The MEC-S has 23 static panels and two 13-foot circular solar panels that are programmed with the latitude and longitude points of the base camps. They unfold at dawn like a daisy, follow the Sun across the sky and go to bed at dusk. In total, the panels and flowers can produce more than 50 kW of electricity at their peak, enough to power 10 houses as long as air conditioning use is conservative.
The MEC-S also features 12 18kW batteries to store power for use during the night and early morning when the base camp is full of competitors. There are lights on in the base camp tent, coffee is brewing, announcements are being made over the public address system, and Starlink is uploading massive digital files to the Internet, all without the use of a generator.
Instead, people connect to one of six mobile switch boxes spread throughout the base camp. 60 amps run from the MEC-S to each box, and that power is then divided into five GFCI protected outlets, which can then be divided among up to 20 outlets. The MEC-S can also function as a Level 1 or Level 2 charger in case the MEC-H becomes overwhelmed by EVs.
The fly in the ointment here is the large refrigerated kitchen truck. While there’s enough power for smaller cookware, the larger box truck would require a second MEC-S, and that’s not in the cards right now. Instead, most of the food is kept cold by the truck’s own generator.
crossing the distance
The Rebelle Rally truly serves as a testing ground for Renewable Innovations’ green energy delivery systems. If it can move to three different base camps over the course of a week and operate without problems, it can certainly be taken into disaster zones to provide emergency power. In fact, Renewable Innovations has been working with the Navajo Nation to help them keep a portable cell tower operational for disaster services.
Both Renewable Innovations and Rebelle Rally understand that technology is not perfect. First of all, it is very expensive. While traditional high power diesel generators can be in the tens of thousands of dollars, the MEC-H costs about $5 million, although later configurations should be much less expensive. Additionally, the MEC-S needs to power the large refrigerated truck before the base camp can be completely free of generators.
Finally, current infrastructure means that the quickest and easiest way to supply hydrogen is with a diesel tractor-trailer. However, both organizations are dedicated to advancing technology. Every year, technology becomes more efficient, providing more energy at a lower cost.
A few years ago, we were dragging our feet when it came to clean, sustainable energy. Now we are walking. Renewable Innovations wants to take us to the goal.