Solar on the High Seas

There was a time when all seafaring vessels used renewable energy sources…they moved either by manpower or wind power, or a combination of the two. The Industrial Revolution changed that and the steam engine, powered by coal or wood, pushed ships out of carbon neutrality.

In March, 2010 I had the privilege to experience the Vela Sud America, a Bicentennial Regatta of tall ships commemorating the creation of the independent South and Latin America, as they passed through the Straits of Magellan near Punta Arenas, Chile on their way up the west coast of South America. The weather hadn’t yet turned very cold (it was nearing winter in the southern hemisphere) and it was a bright sunny day.

Coincidentally today, September 15th, is Independence Day in all 5 countries of Central America–Feliz Día de la Independencia!

Watching the majestic ships tack across the waves made me think about man’s relationship with the elements and how they’ve been both a challenge and a boon to our technological developments.  Harnessing water and wind have allowed numerous advances.  Solar power is another frontier and man’s ingenuity has given expression to ovens, cars, and numerous electrically run systems powered by the sun.   But one of the greatest challenges to solar technology is storage.  How do we retain and use that energy during periods when the sun isn’t shining, or how do we transport that energy away from the storage source?

Over seven years ago a “Kiwi”/German/Swiss team began a project to “take solar on the road”.  Well, actually on the water to be precise, to prove the potential of solar technology.  This mobilization is in the form of taking the Turanor PlanetSolar, a solar panel covered catamaran that resembles a robotic water beetle, around the world using solar energy alone.

The 31-meter long boat, covered with about 500 square meters of panels, set out from Monaco almost a year ago and is scheduled to arrive in Singapore later this month.  It will continue its voyage up the west coast of India and through the Suez Canal, arriving back in Monaco next May.

In a recent phone interview with New York Times reporter Bettina Wassener project coordinator Raphael Domjan stated:

“We want to show to the world what can be done, that modern solar technology has huge economic potential. The idea is to provide an impulse to the industry to consider alternatives, to think about innovative ways to reduce their energy needs.”

The team has the backing and inspiration from numerous “Godfathers“, including (but in no way limited to) a former astronaut, expedition leaders, a film-maker, and the great grandson of Jules Verne.  Independent thinkers and doers all.

Viva la Independencia!

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