The sunny side of the lake

Reigning champ Cedarville University hosts solar boat competition

By Mark Luedtke

Photo: Cedarville’s entry in the DONG Solar Challenge in the Netherlands is lifted from the water after qualifying; photo: Kim Dewhurst

Fun in the sun can be had every summer at Eastwood Lake, but this June, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Power Electronics Society will add a little education to the mix. Solar-powered boats, designed and built by college students, will compete in the birthplace of aviation in the 21st annual Solar Splash event.

Jeff Morehouse, Solar Splash Coordinator, and one of the event’s founders, explained the impetus behind Solar Splash. 

“Bob Reid, Engineering Dean at Marquette University, and myself decided Solar Splash would stimulate engineering students to look into solar energy and be a fun and doable project for design and construction,” Morehouse said. “Solar Splash has always been dedicated to providing an experience with solar energy technology as a clean and sustainable energy alternative.”

Loosely modeled after solar boat competitions in Japan, Solar Splash has stayed true to its original format for over 20 years. The competition began in Milwaukee in 1994 and moved to New Orleans, Buffalo, Fayetteville, Ark. and then Cedar Falls/Waterloo, Iowa, before making it to Dayton, where it is being hosted by Cedarville University.

Cedarville’s Record of Success

Morehouse credits Dayton’s location and facilities among reasons it was chosen for this year’s location, but he mainly credits Cedarville University and local coordinator Tim Dewhurst. Cedarville has an outstanding record of success at Solar Splash, having won the contest six times. The Cedarville team’s faculty advisor since 1997, Senior Professor of Mechanical Engineering Dewhurst is responsible for much of that success. Dewhurst credits Dayton’s heritage of engineering innovation as another reason Dayton was chosen to host the event.

While it took Cedarville a number of years to rise to the top, Dewhurst explained why they’ve been so successful over the last ten years. 

“Definitely the faculty/student interaction has been huge,” Dewhurst said. “We spend hours and hours working side-by-side with the students. Over the years, we have had certain students who just come up with brilliant ideas of how to design some system that ends up taking us to the next level. Our hull designs have been excellent, the ability to design and make our own propellers has been a huge advantage, and our monitoring of the energy system has been excellent.”

Another factor is Cedarville’s engineering program focuses on contests like Solar Splash as an important aspect of students’ education. 

“Cedarville Engineering has put a strong emphasis on participating in inter-scholastic competitions including SAE Aero Design, Formula SAE, Shell EcoMarathon, ASEE Robotics, AUVSI Ground Robot and others,” Dewhurst said. “By competing in these events, students are challenged to carry their designs to completion and to continuously improve them knowing they will be competing against other schools.” Cedarville’s faculty understands success in events like these is a great way to build a reputation that helps graduates get better jobs.

In addition to all this, Dewhurst has a secret weapon that helps Cedarville win: his son. Joel Dewhurst is a senior studying mechanical engineering and is Cedarville’s team leader this year. 

“I’ve been around the project since I was in elementary school,” Joel Dewhurst said. “I was home-schooled, so I got to help out with the boat. I did a lot of sanding along with my siblings. Since coming to Cedarville, I’ve helped out with the boat every year, each year taking on a slightly bigger task. I’ve gone to Solar Splash every year I’ve been a student and several other years, including the two trips to the DONG Energy Solar Challenge in the Netherlands. This experience had a lot to do with my being captain.”

Solar Power

Since the vast majority of the world’s energy comes from fossil fuels, and will continue to do so for decades, the choice to put solar power at the heart of the competition might seem an odd one, but Tim Dewhurst believes using solar power creates engineering challenges that further educate students. 

“I have found this to be an excellent challenge for the students to learn to design something useful with very limited amounts of energy,” he said. “It’s one thing to make a boat go fast, it’s quite another to make a boat go fast on very limited power. The engineering challenges are huge. The whole global focus is to reduce the amount of energy we use. Solar Splash provides the students with an opportunity to address this challenge.”

In addition, solar power is a growing economic sector, setting a record for growth in the U.S. in 2011. Solar Splash participants are well-positioned to be leaders in a fast-growing economic sector. Cedarville University doesn’t just teach about the importance of solar power; it invests in it as well. Cedarville just launched a 10-acre solar installation capable of powering 250 homes. The facility provides 10 percent of the university’s power, and Dewhurst reported the cost is comparable to Dayton Power & Light’s electricity.

Dewhurst has also been approached for specialty solar power projects. 

“Each summer we spend considerable time on Newfound Lake in New Hampshire, typically ranked in the top three cleanest lakes globally,” he said. “Keeping Newfound clean is on everybody’s agenda. Solar/electric boats can play a key role in this. I recently had someone in France contact me about starting a business of solar/electric boats for use on Lake Geneva. I recently met with a racing shell designer of Olympic-caliber boats. He highly encouraged me to develop solar/electric launches for coaches’ boats for crew teams.”

Cedarville students have gone on to develop many important solar power projects, including solar water heaters for a hospital in Liberia and solar-powered lights for pastors in Africa. This work all benefits from Cedarville’s students’ participation in solar challenges.

Because the event is in Dayton, the University of Dayton has entered for the first year. Faculty advisor J. Kelly Kissock, professor and chair of the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering / Renewable and Clean Energy, is passionate about solar energy. 

“In my view, by far the greatest challenge of the 21st century is making the transition to a sustainable economy,” Kissock said. “The most critical part of that transition is learning how to power our economy using the flow of energy from the sun.” There should be plenty of sun at Eastwood Lake.

Explaining why the contest is about boats, not cars like many other contests, Dewhurst simply noted: “We like boats.”


Thirteen teams have entered this year’s competition, including the team from the University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez (UPRM). Because of the financial and logistical challenges of shipping a boat and team to the U.S., they haven’t participated since 2006, but student advisor Guillermo J. Serrano, associate professor for the electrical and computer department at UPRM has high expectations. 

“The UPRM team has been working hard and has put a lot of effort in the design and fabrication of the boat and all its components during this year,” Serrano said. “Expectations are high. We plan to be in one of the first three positions.”

Kissock’s expectations are lower. He just hopes the UD team qualifies.

Dewhurst has high confidence for Cedarville’s improved entry this year, but things don’t always work out as expected. 

“We have made many big improvements in our boat this year, such as a lighter hull, development of new motors, a unique solar panel design and advanced energy management system,” Dewhurst said. “However, there have been years when we ‘should have won’ and didn’t, and other times we really ‘shouldn’t have won’ and did. Anything can go wrong, or right.”

As the captain of the host team, Joel Dewhurst feels extra pressure. 

“We have a reputation that we’ve developed over the years, not only to put up a strong performance, but also to keep building strong relationships with the other teams,” he said. “It has been very good building these ties with the other teams, and it’s a scary responsibility to keep up this juggling act.”

Joel invites spectator interaction. 

“We’d love to have [spectators] out there for what should be a great event,” he said. “There will be exciting races, as well as great interaction with the teams. Feel free to talk to any of the teams. We love showing off what we’ve done and fielding questions. If you can’t be there for the weekdays, come out Saturday and Sunday for the big events. All the teams will have their displays out explaining the work they’ve done this year. Every team has put in a lot of work, and it’s exciting when people show interest.”

As the local coordinator, Dewhurst also plans to bring in local sponsors with booths, feature Dayton’s engineering achievements and stage a Junior Solar Splash event with elementary and middle school students racing solar-powered model boats. The companies that installed Cedarville’s solar array will present a seminar on their economic viability.

But the biggest expectations belong to the students. Joel Dewhurst described an interview that landed him a job: 

“During my interview with Turbocam, a manufacturing company in New Hampshire for whom I’ll be working, my senior design project was the subject that was brought up the most in each interview,” he explained. “Projects are a huge part of the Cedarville University education process. We are responsible to learn a subject in which we have no background, and be able to communicate what we are learning to our advisers who often don’t have direct experience with what we are doing. The adviser’s role becomes more of a managerial role, and the experience reflects that found in industry.”

UD senior mechanical engineering student Tyler Edwards described what he gains from Solar Splash:

“An undergraduate engineering degree tends to limit its focus on relatively simple problems of limited practical value,” Edwards said. “The Solar Splash competition is an opportunity to use what we’ve learned to tackle engineering problems applicable to our future engineering careers.”

Roberto Madera, a fifth-year mechanical engineering student at UPRM, reported Solar Splash participation opens up job opportunities.

“Solar Splash matters because it gives us the opportunity to develop our skills, expose ourselves to more real job-like situations and learn things that are impossible to learn in the classroom, while being fun,” Madera said. “Thanks to the effort I have put into this project, I obtained a full-time summer job in John Hopkins Applied Physics Lab.”

“When students are done with this project, they have confidence they can do any job they are asked to do by their supervisor in industry,” Dewhurst added. “Our students have no experience in boat design, propeller design or solar systems. We ask them to learn how to approach a problem and figure this out. We guide them. We don’t necessarily teach them. When they are done, they know they can figure out whatever they are asked to do.”

Solar Splash gives students leading-edge, practical solar skills as well as a general understanding of project management in a real-world application, and that pays.

Solar Splash is projected to stay in Dayton for several years, at least, and Dewhurst has big plans for the future. His goal is to greatly increase participation to 25 teams, including five from Ohio, as well as attract the general public. He plans to grow Junior Solar Splash, add local sponsors and entice additional displays of Dayton’s engineering heritage. And he plans to keep Cedarville on top.

The Solar Splash solar-powered boat competition will take place June 11-15 at Eastwood Lake, 1385 Harshman Road. For more information, please visit

Reach DCP freelance writer Mark Luedtke at

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Reach DCP freelance writer Mark Luedtke at

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