Solar Boat Regatta in Eden Prairie

High school students from across the state compete in the annual Solar Boat Regatta at Riley Lake Park in Eden Prairie.

Most of the boats coast slowly through the water. Some drift from side to side, proving that nature is always more powerful than man. Some move fluidly. One even sinks. And one zips past like a torpedo, much to the crowd’s delight. This is the scene of the Solar Boat Regatta at Riley Lake Park in Eden Prairie.

The regatta had a homecoming of sorts last year. After taking place at Lake Phalen in St. Paul for several years, Mark Weber from the Minnesota Renewable Energy Society brought the event to his hometown of Eden Prairie and Riley Lake Park. “I thought this would be a perfect beach to have the race,” he says.

Clearly he was on to something, as friends and family crowded the beaches cheering for the young engineers.

Now in its 23rd year, the Solar Boat Regatta is an annual event where high school and middle school students create watercrafts using solar panels. The boats have batteries, which are charged by the panels, and the students take to the water in boats they’ve engineered themselves. The regatta includes three events: speed, slalom and endurance.

(Lauren Mendoza ,Boat: “Howling Yeti”)

The speed race comes first, as each boat takes its turn racing from end to end of the designated buoy lane, while being timed by an official scorer. For the most part, the crafts move with a similar speed, but the Orono team often gives the crowd the biggest thrill, as it is the most seasoned group of solar sailors, having competed in collegiate-level competitions for several years. This speed race is followed up by the slalom, where the boats must navigate in and out of buoys on a set course.

The final event is an endurance race, where all the boats take to the water at once for four 15-minute heats to see how many can last an hour out on the water. This is where spectators can marvel at the different techniques and styles of boats that the young engineers have created.

(Right: Ben Kill, Boat: “Am I Moving”)

Each boat has a unique design, reflecting its makers, with most fashioned out of older crafts repurposed using solar power. Lee Jones is an environmental engineering teacher at the Academy of Holy Angels in Richfield. He made the solar boat a spring project for his class. Parents donated most of the materials, and from there he let his students create designs based on their own concepts.

To keep the kids on track, they were required to have an engineering notebook with design sketches and rundowns of what they worked on. He likes that it’s a project that includes all students. “Some of the kids maybe haven’t aced the tests, but have worked in the shop with their dads, and the others who maybe aren’t as hands-on are bringing ideas for agility or buoyancy on the water,” Jones says.

Unlike the Holy Angels team, most of the groups are there as an extracurricular school activity. The Orono team, typically one of the event’s biggest stars, formed a mini-club supervised by engineering technology teacher Mark Vonder Harr.

(Carson Price, Boat: “O.S.E.K. II.1”)

One of Vonder Harr’s students, Nick Hartung, who graduated last year, is now at Minnesota State University–Mankato, where he continues working on solar boats with classmates. Hartung can’t get on the water enough. “It is a little bit scary because I built [the boat],” he says. “Is it going to fall apart; is it going to work? That sense of pride when you finish is really cool.”

It’s not all about the thrill of the race or the engineering puzzle of building a boat for Hartung and Vonder Harr. They also like that solar power is environmentally friendly. “It’s nice that the solar energy is free energy forever as long as the sun is there,” Vonder Harr says. “It’s great for the environment from that point of view.”

(David Wimer, Boat: "Volitan")

For Weber, the race is as much about the environmental aspect as anything. He loves watching the kids get out on the water, but the main goal is to promote awareness for finding renewable energy solutions.

The Minnesota Renewable Energy Society works hard to make alternative energy solutions mainstream. The volunteer-run organization focuses on wind and solar power, and this year is working on a report with Xcel Energy testing solar panels in rural and urban settings to find out how the technology can be best used in different locations. And for Weber, the concept is one that is very personal. “I had 24 solar panels put on my house,” he says. “I decided I could either buy a Harley Davidson or go with the solar panels, so I went with the solar panels. I power 121 percent of the energy uses of my house with solar panels.”

Weber’s passion for renewable energy makes him a perfect spokesperson for the event. Combined with the excitement the kids get out of the races, and how much they learn in the process, it’s hard to imagine a more well-rounded event.

(Carson Price)

Solar Boat Regatta

10 a.m.–2 p.m. May 16
Riley Lake Park, 9180 Riley Lake Road, Eden Prairie 

In addition to the activities at the beach, the MN Plug-in Vehicle Owners’ Circle will display electric vehicles at the Riley Lake Pavilion. Vehicles will include a Tesla Model S, Nissan Leaf, Chevrolet Volt and others.