Is There a Future in Solar Powered Boats?

I recently read an article about the world’s largest solar boat which, in May 2012, accomplished the first around the world trip powered only by solar energy. This prompted me to investigate the capabilities of solar energy, look at its history, and consider what its potential was for the future.

The “Turanor PlanetSolar”

This, the world’s largest solar powered boat, was designed by LOM Ocean Design and built by Knierim Yachtbau in Kiel, Germany. It was launched on 31 March 2010 and in May 2012 it became the first ever solar electric vehicle to circumnavigate the globe. The boat measures 31 metres and is covered in over 500 square metres of solar panels, rated 93 kW, which connect to one of the two electric motors in each of the two hulls. The hulls also house 8.5 tons of lithium-ion batteries. The vessel can last on battery power for up to four days if there is no sun. It is designed to be used eventually as a luxury yacht which should reach speeds of up to 14 knots, but it is currently being used as a floating marine research laboratory by Geneva University. Future plans are a refit so it can be chartered for tourists in the Mediterranean Sea. Cruises are planned for 12 passengers and a crew of four. The boat is registered in Switzerland and cost 12.5 million Euros. Its name, “Turanor” is taken from J.R.R.Tolkien’s novel “The Lord of the Rings” and means “The Power of the Sun”.

The circumnavigation attempt started on 27 September 2010, when “Turanor” set off from Monaco. On of the project’s aims was to focus awareness on the importance of renewable energies for the protection of the environment. Captained initially by Frenchman Patrick Marchesseau, but from the mid-point of the journey by French Canadian Erwann Le Rouzic, the vessel had a crew of six. During the mission “Turanor” broke two records: the fastest crossing of the Atlantic Ocean by solar boat and the longest distance ever covered by a solar electric vehicle. The journey included a notable stopover in Cancun, Mexico where the 2010 United Nations Climate Change Conference was being held. Problems with the propeller system forced a delay of two weeks for maintenance, but the “Turanor PlanetSolar” arrived back in Monaco on 4 May 2012 after 584 days.

The First Electric Boats

The first electric boat was developed way back in 1839, in St Petersburg, Russia, by Moritz von Jacobi, and demonstrated to Emperor Nicholas 1 of Russia on the Neva River.  It was 7.3 metres long and carried 14 passengers at 3 mph. Meanwhile, in England, experiments with electric powered craft were happening, with pioneers such as Sir William Grove, who introduced fuel cells as a source of energy on a boat. It was not until the 1880’s that they began to be deployed in any numbers. In 1886 an electric boat crossed the English Channel both ways in 8 hours and by 1889 the first hire fleet of 6 electric launches were being used for charter service on the River Thames. Between 1890 and 1920 they enjoyed a period of great popularity, before the emergence of the internal combustion engine triggered their decline. Most were small passenger boats on non-tidal waters, but one of the largest in Britain was the “Mary Gordon”, built on the Thames for Leeds City Council. It was 16 metres long and carried 75 passengers. In a few cases the use of electric boats has persisted to the present day, one example being on the Konigssee Lake in SE Germany where steam and motor boats are prohibited due to the sensitivity of the environment.

Electric power was, for a time, used to power submarines. One of these was the “Peral”, launched by the Spanish Navy; another was the “Gymnote”, launched by the French. Both were eventually scrapped because of their limited battery range. The U-boats used in World War 1 relied on a diesel-electric power system, but by the 1950s nuclear power had begun to replace diesel-electric propulsion.

Early Use Of Solar Energy

It wasn’t until environmental issues caused people to consider cleaner forms of power for boats that solar power started being developed. It was clear from the beginning that there would be problems with energy storage and that the resistance of the hulls would have to be reduced to a minimum, so the first craft consisted of simple photovoltaic panels set up on canoe-like hulls. They tended to be very efficient but vulnerable and not very sea worthy. The first documented solar powered boat was “Solar Craft 1”, which was built in England by Alan T. Freeman and made its maiden voyage in 1975. At the time most commercial manufacturers thought that there was no market for solar powered craft due to the lack of acceptance of the technology by the general public.

In 1982 the Electric Boat Association (EBA) was founded in the UK. Its fleet includes a growing number of solar boats ranging from small, lightweight craft up to passenger boats capable of carrying 50 or more passengers, and including a 68ft canal barge which is the largest electric boat on the UK’s inland waterways.

The term “solar-powered” gives the impression that the total amount of propulsion energy needed to power the boat is generated by the use of solar panels. A private boat, used infrequently may well be able to get all its energy from the sun, but commercial boats on a tight and regular schedule are more likely to be “solar-assisted”.

In the 1990’s there were further developments and the first commercial boats came into service, mainly around inland waterways. The “Solifleur” was used on Lake Neuchatel in 1994, built by the Swiss company MW-Line, and still runs today. There were also solar boat races throughout Europe and the USA which popularised the concept and helped to develop new techniques. In 1997 the EBA President Malcolm Moss made the first-ever solar-powered crossing of the English Channel in his 6.7 metre catamaran “Collinda” and another catamaran, “Solar Flair”, achieved the first solar-powered cruise along the entire non-tidal Thames in 2003, a journey of 124 miles. The Pacific was crossed in 1996 by “Malt’s mermaid” and the first Atlantic crossing was in 2007 by “Sun21”. A time was set, for a solar powered boat, for the Guinness Book of Records, by Cedric Lynch in August 2000. His Canadian style canoe with 2 photovoltaic panels achieved an average speed of 5.48kph

The Future

With fuel prices rocketing, the cost of solar panels coming down and the capabilities of harnessing solar energy improving rapidly, the future of solar boats looks rosy. We will, no doubt, continue to see larger and more powerful panels and batteries able to store greater amounts of energy, enabling bigger vessels to travel greater distances.

Japan’s largest shipping line is planning to use solar panels capable, of generating 40 kilowatts of electricity, on a 60,000 tonne car carrier ship. The Monaco yacht company “Wally” has announced their “Why 58 x 58”, a gigayacht designed for billionaires, which will have 900 square metres of solar panels, generating 150 kW to assist its diesel-electric motors and Skysails.

Few of us will be able to afford a boat of this scale and the question must be asked, “Are these mega solar powered yachts just billionaires toys and will the advantages of solar power ever counteract the environmental cost of building them?” Maybe not, but if we don’t experiment and push out the boundaries we will never find out.

Author – Dee White

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