Published: Sunday, January 15, 2012 5:07 PM CST

For The News-Dispatch

MICHIGAN CITY — When the International Disaster Conference and Expo begins its three-day run in New Orleans on Tuesday, Winn Machine President Damon Gasaway will be there.

Gasaway will show off a state-of-the-art model of the SolaRover electric generator his company and MCTD Inc., Michigan City, have built, and demonstrate to disaster experts from around the globe how SolaRover fits into relief efforts in areas affected by war, hurricanes, tornadoes and other disasters.

Gasaway and MCTD President Tim Johnson are optimistic SolaRover will be part of those recovery efforts in the future.

With the engineering and design expertise of MCTD and the production capabilities of Winn Machine, the two companies have taken an idea conceived by SolaRover and turned it into a viable commercial product.

Solar-powered portable generators can replace and slash the costs of using diesel-powered generators, not to mention the enormous environmental benefits.

“It is extremely rare that you can bring an environmentally friendly product to market and actually save money by doing it,” Gasaway said.

Initially designed with the military and foreign off-grid applications in mind, SolaRover units also are being adapted for use in disaster areas following hurricanes and tornadoes.

“They can be used anywhere people are off the grid,” Johnson said. “While a comparable-sized diesel generator costs tens of thousands of dollars in fossil fuels and maintenance to operate on a continuous basis annually, a SolaRover generator only has the initial investment for a product that has a 20-year life.

“Conservatively, it is only a four- to five-year payback on the initial investment at today’s fuel prices. That means at current fuel costs, a SolaRover generator could provide a savings in excess of at least a quarter of a million dollars over the life of the unit.”

Gasaway said the two Michigan City companies connected with SolaRover because of a long past association with the president and engineer at the Denver company.

“I have an interest in the company that started four years ago. Things were moving slow, so we took their ideas and blueprints and brought it to life,” Gasaway said. “It’s a great feeling to bring an idea like this to life.”

Johnson agrees, saying the upcoming show in New Orleans is an important way to get the word out about SolaRover.

“It’s a win-win-win,” he said. “Not only are the units able to operate without the use of diesel fuel, SolaRover will create jobs and do so without requiring any kind of government subsidy.”

Even though the original prototype has barely been reviewed by potential buyers, it was a smashing success in powering a late summer festival in Colorado – the first of its kind.

Johnson says design work on the next generation of solar-powered generators is under way. He said those designs will work in conjunction with diesel generators, improving their fuel efficiency by as much as 40 percent.

“It’s a full hybrid,” Johnson said. “This one will tell the generator when to turn on, operate for a couple of hours until the batteries in the solar unit are charged and then the diesel unit will turn off.”

One model recently purchased by a university in Georgia comes equipped with an integrated wind turbine.

Johnson and Gasaway say there is nothing unusual about the cooperation between the two companies.

“The project is bigger than both of us personally,” Gasaway said. “We both have different skill sets. Tim has the engineering side, and we’re more of a manufacturing shop.”

“I would agree with that,” Johnson added. “Going for ultimate success, we need both of us because we both bring a different vantage point to the table. That’s why we’re going to be successful.”

The SolaRover project was among a dozen projects from Northwest Indiana that in October 2011 was nominated for the Chanute Prize by the Society of Innovators of Northwest Indiana. The award recognizes the most unique innovation in manufacturing or specialty product in the region. It is sponsored by Ivy Tech State College Northwest.

Gasaway said U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Indianapolis, has support the project. La Porte Mayor Blair Milo also has offered input. The SolaRover team has met with Defense Department officials at various military bases to put SolaRover though some grueling tests.

Impressed military representatives have made several suggestions to Gasaway and Johnson on how to improve SolaRover so it could be used by the military.

Even though development of SolaRover is being done in Denver, key engineering and fabrication is taking place in Michigan City. If SolaRover takes off, Gasaway and Johnson say it could create up to 200 new jobs in the county.

“Part of my long-term vision for my company is to use the skill sets we have and leverage it for future business,” Johnson said. “The potential of this project is beyond anything I could have imagined. This is part of the reason for the partnership between Winn and MCTD.

“I think this is beyond everything either one of us ever imagined.”

Learn more about Winn Machine here.

Learn more about MCTD here.