NORTH TAMPA — At the University of South Florida, nearly 600 golf carts regularly cross paths with students and staff on the Tampa campus' streets and sidewalks. About 75 percent of the carts are powered by gasoline. The rest run on batteries — with one exception.
"I have been stopped by students who ask me what's on top of the golf cart," said Jose Rodriguez, assistant manager of building maintenance at USF's physical plant.
What students point at is a set of solar panels. The cart Rodriguez drives — once battery operated — has used solar energy since January. That's when staff at the university's physical plant retrofitted the cart with the panels as a test run, said Nainan Desai.
This year, solar power production went up and prices went down nationwide, said Desai, a member of the university's sustainability steering committee and assistant director of the physical plant, which maintains roads, parking lots, lighting and buildings. So the school decided to try solar panels on a cart.
"Initially, it is an expensive proposition," Desai said.
The test cart's panels cost about $800, including installation. Retrofitting the ones the university already has is cheaper than buying solar powered carts brand new, which could cost $9,000 or more each, Desai said.
The campus' hundreds of carts are owned in sets by many of the university's departments. How many are converted will be up to each department's discretion and budget, Desai said. If a department wanted to convert a large number of carts in one shot, the total cost would depend on the results of a bidding process. "I think the cost can come down substantially from what it cost us for the first golf cart," he said.
Once the first cart has used solar energy for an entire year, the physical plant will decide when to convert the rest of its carts. In the meantime, Desai awaits the delivery of two electric trucks with solar rooftops — another step toward sustainability. Staff will use one truck to deliver mail and another to deliver custodial supplies across campus.
"The university is aggressively pursuing sustainability," said Desai. Solar golf carts and electric vehicles can play an integral role in reducing the university's carbon footprint, he said.
"We used to plug (the golf cart in) every night to charge," Rodriguez said. "That golf cart has not been plugged in the charger since January."
It's evidence, Desai said, that these efforts are making an impact.
"Solar power is an infinite source of energy," he said. "When we harness that technologically, we have achieved a certain level of improved environment."
Arleen Spenceley can be reached at (813) 909-4617 or firstname.lastname@example.org.