It’s not often that a motorsport event doesn’t focus on sustainability. Then again, the Rebelle Rally is no ordinary motorsport event. Instead of relying on speed, Rebelle is all about precise navigation.
How a women’s off-road rally can keep electric vehicles running using clean energy
Over eight days of competition, teams of two drive street-legal vehicles to 20 or so checkpoints each day, all off-road and without the use of GPS. Teams plot longitude and latitude points on a topographical map and figure out a way to reach those checkpoints using only analog tools: a scale ruler; Plotter to determine the address. 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 the Rebelle Rally just happens to be women-only.
Founder Emily Miller wanted to bring the challenge of motorsport to life where women would have the opportunity to participate even with little or no experience. Now in its eighth year, the gathering attracts participants from all walks of life. There are engineers, lawyers, CEOs, mothers, and yes, some race car drivers. Regardless of their profession, everyone shares a love of adventure and a competitive spirit.
Since 2020, Rebelle has been fielding electric cars
Since 2020, Rebelle has been fielding electric cars. I started off the first two years driving a Rivian R1T with my trusted navigator, Rebecca Donaghy. We brought the truck, but let Miller solve the problem of shipping the car in remote locations for over a week.
The easiest way is to use a diesel generator for charging. The hard way – and the better way – is to use sustainable hydrogen to keep electric vehicles moving along the track.
This is where Renewable Innovations comes into play. Founded by hydrogen industry pioneer Robert Mount, this Utah-based company is dedicated to bringing green energy solutions to the world’s most isolated regions. The company has developed two Mobile Energy Efficient (MEC) systems to provide sustainable energy for the Rebelle Rally.
The assembly has two problems to solve. First, it has to provide clean energy to the countless electric cars competing in the event. It must also provide 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 and a Ford Mustang Mach-E Rally trucks competing and needing the power in base camp and on the track. Additionally, there are four Jeep Wrangler Rubicon 4xe hybrids that can be upgraded every night. MEC-H does it all with green hydrogen.
What is green hydrogen anyway?
Hydrogen is classified based on the method of its extraction. Gray hydrogen, from natural gas, is the most common. Green hydrogen is manufactured using renewable energy, usually solar or wind power, to electrolyze water. When electricity is added to water, the oxygen and hydrogen atoms split without any direct carbon dioxide emissions.
Renewable Innovations brought green hydrogen from supplier Plug Power to the Rebelle Rally in a special tanker developed by Quantum Fuel Systems. Mount called the tanker a VP, or virtual pipeline, capable of delivering 800 kilograms of the sustainable ingredient. While Mount expects the infrastructure to expand in the future, the only way to deliver hydrogen currently is by diesel truck, let alone transport it to a remote desert location.
However, as hydrogen-powered tractor trailers improve, the company expects to be able to use large hydrogen fuel cell-powered platforms as delivery vehicles, making the entire shebang a major sustainable system.
The MEC-H is equipped with eight fuel cells, capable of producing 30 kilowatts of power each. Hydrogen comes from the VP via a stainless steel line to the fuel cell, where reverse electrolysis occurs. An electrochemical process splits a proton and an electron into hydrogen. The proton passes through a membrane, combines with oxygen in the atmosphere, and forms water. Electrons flow around the membrane, and bingo is clean electricity.
But there is one 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 to the DC power required by electric vehicles. Think of EVs as picky eaters who will only eat chicken nuggets. These chargers take chicken nuggets — AC power from the grid — and turn them into chicken nuggets — DC power — so EVs can have their dinner.
Think of EVs as picky eaters who will only eat chicken nuggets
To take the issue back a bit in the process, fuel cells store DC power, but currently, there is no way to connect electric vehicles directly to these fuel cells. You see, picky eaters want Trader Joe’s chicken nuggets, not Whole Foods. So DC power—chicken nuggets from Whole Foods—needs to pass through an inverter to be converted to AC power—back to a whole chicken—only to be fed into fast chargers to be changed. behind To D.C. — chicken nuggets ordered from Trader Joe’s — and to electric cars.
Mount estimates that the current swap process results in an energy loss of 4 to 8 percent. He says he hopes to build chargers that can accept DC power by next year.
The fuel cells can also send power to a bank of batteries, bringing the total power stored on board to 560 kilowatts. When everything is running at maximum capacity, the fuel cells produce about 15 gallons of deionized potable water per hour.
Put the water in, then take it out, and charge thirsty EVs in between while you’re out and about—that’s what Miller always wanted and what Renewable Innovations has done.
Portable green charging station
Between the two commercial shippers there are three CSS plugs and one CHAdeMo. Each charger can deliver 180 kW of electricity, splitting it between the two outlets as necessary. The MEC-H also contains three Level 2 chargers that provide 6 kW of power, ideal for charging hybrid vehicles overnight.
The MEC-H is used in base camps but will occasionally head out onto the track to charge vehicles if competitors have a very long stage, which can be up to 249 miles (400 km). While most electric cars can go full range on a single charge on pavement, the range decreases when the tires hit dirt.
But what happens if the electric car runs out of charge somewhere the MEC-H can’t reach? That’s when the BEV recovery vehicle takes its turn in the sun. This Polaris Special Forces side-by-side is equipped with a 15 kWh charging capacity and a 5 kW inverter. It currently operates as a Level 1 charger, capable of pushing out five miles of charge in about an hour. However, Renewable Innovations has plans to upgrade soon. However, competitors better hope the field doesn’t run out of electrons. It may be a long wait to start again.
However, MEC-H only solves the problem of EV charging. The three base camps, or BCs, are home away from home for competitors, media and staff and need a tremendous amount of power to function. There are computers for media to operate, water to heat the shower, and a fully equipped kitchen that must feed all 256 employees and competitors twice a day. Here, the MEC-S saves the day – and, as you guessed it, the S stands for solar energy.
Photo by Regine Trias/Rebel Rally
The MEC-S has 23 fixed panels and two 13-foot circular solar panels, programmed with the longitude and latitude points of base camps. They open at dawn like a daisy, track the sun across the sky, and put themselves to bed at dusk. Finally, the panels and flowers can produce more than 50 kilowatts of electricity at peak, enough to power 10 homes as long as air conditioning use is conservative.
The MEC-S also has 12 18-kilowatt batteries to store energy for use at night and early in the morning when base camp is full of competitors. There are lights on in the base camp tent, coffee is leaking, announcements are being made over the PA system, and Starlink is uploading massive digital files to the Internet, all without the use of a generator.
Instead, people plug into one of six mobile crusher boxes spread throughout base camp. 60 amps go from the MEC-S to each box, and that power is then divided into five GFCI-protected outlets, which can then be split between up to 20 outlets. The MEC-S can also act as a Level 1 or Level 2 charger in case the MEC-H is overworked with electric vehicles.
The fly in the ointment here is the large refrigerated kitchen truck. While there is enough power for smaller kitchen appliances, a larger box truck would require a second MEC-S, which is not out of the question at the moment. Instead, the majority of the food is cooled by the truck’s generator.
Go across the distance
The Rebelle Rally truly serves as a proving ground for Renewable Innovations’ green energy delivery systems. If it can travel to three different base camps over the course of a week and work flawlessly, it can certainly be brought into disaster areas to provide emergency power. In fact, Renewable Innovations is working with the Navajo Nation to help them keep a mobile cell tower running for disaster services.
Both Renewable Innovations and Rebelle Rally recognize that technology is not perfect. First of all, it’s expensive as hell. While traditional high-powered diesel generators can cost tens of thousands of dollars, MEC-H generators cost closer to $5 million, although later setups should be much less expensive. Furthermore, the MEC-S needs to get the large refrigerated truck running before the base camp is completely devoid of generators.
Finally, existing infrastructure means that the quickest and easiest way to deliver hydrogen is with a diesel-powered tractor trailer. However, both organizations are committed to moving the technology forward. Every year, technology becomes more efficient, providing more energy at a lower cost.
Just a few years ago, we were crawling when it came to clean, sustainable energy. Now, we’re walking. Renewable Innovations wants to take us to the finish line.