By Barry Scott

Twenty-four teams totaling more than 500 students met on May 8 and 9 at historic Rancho Seco park south of Sacramento for the fourth annual Northern California Solar Regatta. The lake is part of the now-decommissioned Rancho Seco Nuclear Power Plant and serves the community for recreational purposes.

Solar-electric boat with cooling towers in the background (photo courtesy of SMUD)

Great Minds Think Alike:
Inspired by a similar event in Southern California called the Solar Cup, the Solar Regatta was hatched when NEED approached our friend Suzette Bienvenue, Education Specialist at the Sacramento Metropolitan Utility District (SMUD) with the suggestion that an event be created for schools in the north end of the state.
Rancho Seco was the perfect place, centrally located for northern California schools and owned by SMUD. Suzette, herself a former NEED teacher, took on the task of developing rules and procedures, contacting schools, and putting together the resources needed to launch the first Solar Regatta in May of 2012. Originally designed as a one-day event for high schools with a middle school division, the Regatta has grown to two days with the second day dedicated to college teams.

Four Years of Fun!
The 2012 inaugural event was a blast, teams from distant schools camped out in the park the night before, that’s now part of the fun! Most of the entries were modified dinghies, kayaks, or canoes sporting various forms of electric locomotion, parts borrowed form other devices or trolling motors. One entry from a school in Tracy was built from scratch. This year, most of the boats were custom built from kits or team designs. Designs and details have become more and more sophisticated and include innovative steering mechanisms and drive trains. And a lot of the original teams keep coming back. Teams compete in different events: the sprint, the slalom, and the endurance race to see which boat can go the greatest distance on battery power only. A sustainability award is granted to the entry that shows the best use of recycled or sustainable materials. Other awards are granted for best drive train, judges’ choice, best design, and other criteria.

Solar Energy and STEM: the perfect match!
The mission of the Solar Regatta is to engage students in renewable energy through solar technology and STEM- Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. The NCSR invites teams from northern CA to compete and showcase their boat design, technological innovations and team spirit, through a variety of racing courses and presentation events. Each team consists of a minimum of four students and no more than thirty with at least two members being certified as boating pilots. Students are encouraged to camp out the day before their races to network with students from other schools.

Students building a solar boat

This paddlewheel design uses wooden gears to adjust the angle of solar modules.

Repeat Contenders:
This year, Friday May 8 saw 17 teams competing with over 400 students in attendance. Saturday May 9 had 7 college teams with over 100 students attending. Several teams are have competed every year since the inaugural event and are led by veteran NEED teachers. One is former Navy nuclear engineer and current academy coordinator Dave Yeroshek at Foothill High School, one of five Pacific Gas and Electric Company’s Energy Academies. Another NEED teacher, Chris Van Meter, Ceres High Physics and Green Energy Academy teacher, keeps coming back with his team and impresses us with each entry. The Ceres team took away awards for Best Presentation and Students Choice.

“Best in Class”
Two of our favorite teams are led by Eric Johnson and Greg Holman, both friends of the NEED Project and with a winning history at the Solar Regatta. Eric is the coordinator of the Green Energy Technology Academy at Laguna Creek High School. Known for his work sending student-built solar suitcases to needy communities in far away places, Eric is a master at creating student-centered STEM projects and events, like his school’s annual electric cart race. The Laguna Creek team took the top prize, the Regatta Cup, in 2012, 2013, and 2014. This year they took the first place prize in the Slalom Course event.
Last year, after the team’s third win at the Regatta, the team was invited to participate in the international competition, the Monte Carlo Cup, to compete against teams from Germany, Italy, and other top world teams. Wow!

Eric Johnson with his solar boat team in July 2014 in Monaco!

Small but Powerful!
Another impressive team is led by NEED Project Teacher Advisory Board member Greg Holman, from Evergreen 6th Grade Academy in the town of Paradise. Greg brought his team to the very first Regatta in 2012. In fact, the rules were modified so that they and other middle schools could compete along side the high school teams. The Evergreen team has had a showing every year but this year the outcome was historic.
Spectators watched as the Evergreen team, piloted by 7th grader Alandra Swangler and then second pilot 6th grader Hannah Johnke, overtook the Laguna Creek team’s entry for the win! Evergreen took first place in the Sprint and Endurance races that day, earning them the overall Regatta Cup! This resulted in their invitation to compete the following day against the college and university teams from Cal State Sacramento, Cal State Chico, Cosumnes River College and others. On Day Two, the Evergreen team beat every college team in the Endurance event! Now THAT’s impressive!

Solar Regatta award recipients

The Evergreen 6th Grade Academy team, above, took the 2015 Regatta Cup!

It’s all about STEM and Energy!
Not just solar energy, these impressive boats run on the energy of the student team and the parents and the sponsors and, of course, the teachers. Looking at each team over the years it becomes apparent that their designs evolve and the partnerships they create grow, too. Successful teams are able to find professionals to provide technical support and boat and electronics component designers and manufacturers who are willing to sponsor a team with funds or materials. Best of all, however, is that in every case the students are the builders and the project easily ties to teaching standards in math and science that they’re required to master. This sort of competition is a perfect response to the expectations of Common Core curriculum and Next Generation Science Standards, and students build skills that they’ll need to be successful in their careers!

Oh, and it’s really fun, too!

Attendees of California Solar Regatta

Middle and High School teams pose for a group shot (photo courtesy of SMUD)

The NEED Project celebrates Suzette Bienvenue and all of the teachers and students for jobs well done!

The dates for the 2016 Solar Regatta will be May 13 and 14.

For information about the application process, photos, visit