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How an off-road rally for women keeps EVs rolling using clean energy

Sustainably charging electric vehicles and providing power to over 250 people for eight days in the middle of the desert is no easy task. Renewable Innovations has the answer.

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Photo collage of various scenes from Rebelle Rally.
Photos by Tim Sutton, Mayfield Media, courtesy of Rebelle Rally

It’s not often a motorsports event puts an emphasis on sustainability. Then again, the Rebelle Rally isn’t your average motorsports event. Instead of being based on speed, the Rebelle is all about precise navigation. 

Over eight days of competition, teams of two drive street-legal vehicles to 20 or so checkpoints each day, all off-road and without using GPS. The teams plot latitude and longitude points on a topographical map and figure out a way to get to those checkpoints using only analog tools: a scale ruler; a plotter to determine the heading; and a compass. Checkpoints might be marked by a flag, but often they are not marked at all, leaving teams to triangulate their location.

Oh, and the Rebelle Rally just happens to be for women only.

Founder Emily Miller wanted to bring a motorsports challenge to life where women 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 race car drivers. Regardless of their profession, all share a love of adventure and a competitive spirit.

Since 2020, the Rebelle has fielded electric vehicles

Since 2020, the Rebelle has fielded electric vehicles. It started the first two years with yours truly piloting a Rivian R1T along with my trusty navigator, Rebecca Donaghe. We brought the truck, but we let Miller solve the problem of charging the vehicle in remote locations for over a week. 

The easiest way would be to just use a diesel generator to charge. The hard way — the better way — would be to use sustainable hydrogen to keep the EVs rolling along the course. 

Rebelle Rally day two on October 15th, 2023.
Rebelle Rally day two on October 15th, 2023.
Photo by Ernesto Araiza / Rebelle Rally

Off-grid power

This is where Renewable Innovations comes in. Founded by hydrogen industry leader Robert Mount, this Utah-based company is dedicated to bringing green power solutions to the most isolated parts of the world. The company has developed two Mobile Energy Command (MEC) systems to deliver sustainable power to the Rebelle Rally.

The rally has two problems to solve. First, it has to deliver clean energy to the myriad electric vehicles competing in the event. It also has to bring sustainable power 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 a Ford Mustang Mach-E Rally competing that need power both at base camp and on-course. Additionally, there are four Jeep Wrangler Rubicon 4xe plug-in hybrids to be juiced up every night. The MEC-H gets it all done with green hydrogen. 

What is green hydrogen, anyway?

Hydrogen is classified based on its extraction method. Gray hydrogen, created with natural gas, is the most common. Green hydrogen is made by using renewable energy, usually solar or wind power, to electrolyze water. When electricity is added to water, the oxygen and hydrogen atoms are split without any direct CO2 emissions.

Renewable Innovations brought green hydrogen from supplier Plug Power to the Rebelle Rally in a special tanker developed by Quantum Fuel Systems. Mount dubbed the tanker the VP, or virtual pipeline, capable of delivering 800 kilograms of the sustainable element. While Mount expects the infrastructure to expand in the future, for now, the only way to deliver hydrogen is with a diesel-powered truck, to say nothing of bringing it to a remote desert location.

However, as hydrogen-powered tractor trailers improve, the company expects to be able to use hydrogen fuel cell big rigs as delivery vehicles, making the whole shebang one big sustainable system.

Rebelle Rally day one on October 14th, 2023.
Rebelle Rally day one on October 14th, 2023.
Photo by Regine Trias / Rebelle Rally
Rebelle Rally day one on October 14th, 2023.
Rebelle Rally day one on October 14th, 2023.
Photo by Ernesto Araiza / Rebelle Rally

The MEC-H is equipped with eight fuel cells, capable of producing 30kW of power each. Hydrogen from the VP comes through a stainless steel line into the fuel cells, where reverse electrolysis happens. An electrochemical process splits the proton and electron in the hydrogen. The proton passes through a membrane, combines with oxygen from the atmosphere, and makes water. The electrons flow around the membrane, and bingo — clean electricity.

There is one little problem, however. The MEC-H is equipped with two commercial DC fast chargers, the kind you’ll find at any public charging station. These chargers are designed to take AC power from the grid and turn it into the DC power required by EVs. Think of EVs as picky eaters that will only eat chicken nuggets. These chargers take the chicken — the AC power from the grid — and turn it into chicken nuggets — DC power — so the EVs will eat their dinner.

Think of EVs as picky eaters that will only eat chicken nuggets

Bringing the problem a bit further back in the process, the fuel cells store DC power, but currently, there isn’t a way to plug the EVs directly into these fuel cells. See, the picky eater wants Trader Joe’s chicken nuggets, not the ones from Whole Foods. So the DC power — the chicken nuggets from Whole Foods — needs to go through an inverter to convert to AC — back into a whole chicken — only to be fed into the fast chargers to get changed back to DC — the required chicken nuggets from Trader Joe’s — and into the electric vehicles. 

Mount estimates the current swapping process results in anywhere from 4 to 8 percent in power loss. 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 amount of on-board stored power to 560kW. When everything is working at full blast, the fuel cells put out about 15 gallons of deionized, drinkable water per hour. 

Water in, water out, charge thirsty EVs in between while out in a remote location — that is what Miller has always wanted and what Renewable Innovations has done. 

A portable green charging station

Between the two commercial chargers, there are three CSS plugs and one CHAdeMo. Each charger can deliver 180kW of electricity, splitting it between the two ports as necessary. The MEC-H also has three Level 2 chargers that provide 6kW of power, perfect for charging the plug-in hybrids overnight.

The MEC-H is used at base camps but sometimes heads out on course to charge vehicles if the competitors have an extra-long stage, which can be as many as 249 miles (400 kilometers). While most electric vehicles can certainly travel the full range for a single charge on the pavement, range drops when the tires hit the dirt. 

But what happens if an EV runs out of charge at a place the MEC-H can’t get to? That is when the Recovery Vehicle BEV 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’s currently functioning as a Level 1 charger, able to push five miles of charge in about an hour. However, Renewable Innovations has plans to upgrade soon. Still, competitors better hope they don’t run out of electrons out in the field. It might be a long wait to get going again.

Blooming sunshine

However, the MEC-H only solves the problem of charging EVs. The three base camps, or BCs, are the home away from home for competitors, media, and staff and need massive amounts of power to function. There are media computers to power, water to heat showers, and a fully equipped kitchen that has to feed all 256 staff 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 base camps’ latitude and longitude points. They unfurl at dawn like a daisy flower, track the Sun across the sky, and put themselves to bed at dusk. All told, the panels and flowers can put out over 50kW of electricity at peak, enough to power 10 houses as long as air conditioning use is conservative. 

The MEC-S also has 12 18kW batteries to store energy for use at nighttime and in the early morning when base camp is full of competitors. There are lights in the base camp tent, coffee is percolating, 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, folks plug into one of six mobile breaker boxes scattered throughout base camp. 60 amps go from the MEC-S into each box, and that power is then split into five GFCI-protected outlets, which can then be split between a maximum of 20 outlets. The MEC-S can also function as a Level 1 or Level 2 charger should the MEC-H get overwhelmed with electric vehicles. 

The fly in the ointment here is the large refrigerated kitchen truck. While there is enough power for the smaller kitchen tools, the larger box truck would require a second MEC-S, and that’s not in the cards at the moment. Instead, a majority of the food is kept cool by the truck’s own generator. 

Beautiful aerial of vehicles parked and tents camped in a wide rural desert with mountains in the background at sunset.
Rebelle Rally day 3 on October 16th, 2023.
Photo by Mayfield Media / Rebelle Rally

Going the distance

The Rebelle Rally really functions as a proving ground for Renewable Innovations’ green power delivery systems. If it can move 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 has been working with the Navajo Nation to help it keep a portable cell tower running for disaster services. 

Both Renewable Innovations and the Rebelle Rally understand that the technology isn’t perfect. First of all, it’s expensive as hell. While traditional high-powered diesel generators can be in the tens of thousands of dollars, the MEC-H is close to $5 million, although subsequent setups should be much less expensive. Further, the MEC-S needs to power the large refrigerator truck before base camp can be completely generator-free. 

Finally, current infrastructure means the quickest and easiest way to deliver hydrogen is with a diesel tractor trailer. However, both organizations are dedicated to pushing the technology forward. Each year, the technology gets more efficient, providing more power at a lower cost. 

A few years ago, we were just crawling when it came to clean, sustainable power. Now, we are walking. Renewable Innovations wants to take us over the finish line. 

Rebelle Rally day 2 on October 13th, 2023.
Rebelle Rally day 2 on October 13th, 2023.
Photo by Regine Trias / Rebelle Rally