When Matt Winslett settles behind the wheel of a UAB Global Electronic Motorcar (GEM) and hits the streets around campus, he feels quite certain he is in the safest vehicle in all of Birmingham.

Matt Winslett drives one of the two GEMs purchased by the Facilities Energy Management Department in February.
“No one’s going to run over you because they’re too busy looking at you,” says Winslett, engineering manager in Energy Management. “People look at you so close you’d think you were driving a Ferrari. The car is so ugly it’s cute, and it really makes a statement.”

And making a statement is one of the key reasons the Facilities Energy Management Department purchased two GEMs and added them to its fleet in February. Many universities are using plug-in electric vehicles for various tasks, but UAB may be one of the first universities to recharge the vehicles using solar energy exclusively. The result is an almost wholly green vehicle with zero emissions.

The cars are recharged during the night with stored solar energy provided by a dozen 200-watt, solar photovoltaic panels recently installed on the roof of the Facilities Administration Building garage.

“One of the problems with the majority of electric cars is that somewhere a power plant has to burn coal to help power it, so all you’re really doing is transferring your carbon footprint,” Winslett says.

“That’s why we went solar. We’re totally free from the power grid, and we don’t use any carbon at all to drive around campus.

“We wanted to make a statement about our commitment to going green and learn a little more about electric vehicles and solar power in the process.”

Leader in energy conservation
The green-and-white GEMs are pool vehicles and are quite popular with the staff. One of the vehicles has logged more than 270 miles while the other has traveled 284 miles on campus in six months.

The two-seat cars are powered by six 12-volt, no-maintenance batteries and have a travel range of approximately 35 miles on a full charge. They feature a 7.0 horsepower engine, can reach speeds of 26 miles per hour and are street legal. They have bumpers, lights, turn signals, windshield wipers, side- and rear-view mirrors, a horn, seat belts, rotary disc brakes and heated seats. Two mounted fans on the corners of the dashboard provide the air conditioning. The rest of the air conditioning comes naturally.

“We say we have a 2/25 air conditioner — two windows down and 25 miles per hour,” says William Odom, director of Utilities Management. “Really, these cars are fantastic. They perform great, they save energy — which is the key goal of our department — and it shows we want to be a leader in using green technology.”

Winslett says his department also is doing other things to make the campus use its electricity more efficiently.

Some of the projects include upgrading to energy-efficient lights in campus buildings and setting controls to run the air conditioning less frequently when buildings are unoccupied.

“We just completed a big project in the Shelby Building automating the lights to shut off at 8 p.m., and there were parts of the building we could set the temperature back during the night,” Winslett says. “We’re doing this to be better stewards of our resources.”

For example, 30 buildings on campus went into unoccupied mode beginning Thursday, July 2 and remained that way through the July 4 holiday weekend. They came back online around 5 a.m. the following Monday, July 6.

“We did that for 24 buildings over Memorial Day weekend too,” Winslett says. “We’re hopefully going to get more buildings with each holiday. There are many different things we’re exploring and working on.

“We’re passionate about saving money and getting energy costs and use reduced on campus.”

Low-maintenance vehicles
The GEMs and solar panels are a perfect example. The batteries are guaranteed for five years; the maintenance is limited to keeping air in tires and ensuring the windshield wiper works. 

“The two all-electric vehicles only cost 2 cents per mile to operate. This is the equivalent of paying 4 cents per gallon for fuel for a typical gasoline-fueled car,” Winslett said.