Solar power on the world’s water

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Currently docked in Venice, the MS Tûranor PlanetSolar is one of the world’s most interesting vehicles. Powered by nothing but solar energy, this boat has done what most cannot do with traditional technology, sail all over the world, navigating some of the most difficult waterways using nothing but energy from the sun.

In August, Total World Energy reviewed the revolutionary solar powered airplane, Solar Impulse. This is a piece of engineering brilliance using solar panels and advanced energy storage techniques to allow the plane to fly for huge distances, even without the sun.

And the use of solar power in ‘everyday activities’ is increasing; it’s not just in huge commercial solar parks where the true power of the sun is being realised. Take The Lightie (featured in Total World Energy June 2014) for example; an everyday problem being solved through the use of solar power.

And this month we take a look at another transport related problem that is being addressed by the sun and that problem is on the seas, rivers, lakes and oceans of the world. How do you go about sailing across large waters without polluting and using dirty fuels? You can’t use batteries; they’re too unreliable, you can’t rely on wind; you never know where you’ll end up, but one thing that is certain is that at some point on your journey, the sun will shine and being on open water, it’s unlikely that you’ll be covered by shadow.

So the PlanetSolar team decided to try and demonstrate that solar sailing is viable by undertaking a world-tour and sailing around the entire planet using nothing but solar energy.

The point of this ambitious plan was to prove that today, we have the resources, the knowledge and technologies required to reduce our dependence on fossil energy.

The story began ten years ago, back in 2004 when Swiss eco-adventurer, Raphaël Domjan, had the idea to sail around the world on a boat powered only by solar energy. His dream became a reality in 2008 after he met Immo Stroeher, a German entrepreneur, and advocate of solar technologies who had solid experience in the field. Together, the two men combined ideas and funds to make this idea a reality. Construction of the boat began at the end of 2008 in Kiel, Germany. It took almost 18 months before MS Tûranor PlanetSolar, the largest solar boat ever constructed, was ready to put to sea.

The first world tour started on September 27th 2010. The solar vessel left the port of Monaco, heading west towards the Atlantic, the Panama Canal, the Pacific, the Indian Ocean, the Gulf of Aden, the Suez Canal, stopping at 52 ports along the way before finally returning to the Mediterranean Sea and Monaco on May 4th 2012. During this remarkable journey, the crew and the vessel met members of the media, the public and other sailors to promote the idea and solar energy in general.

The first world tour was widely regarded as a success and a great feat of engineering. The boat was powered only by photovoltaic technologies demonstrating that the industry had matured and become efficient.

The next challenge for the boat was a tour of the Mediterranean. During the summer of 2012, the vessel moved around Europe, further validating the efficiency of energy from the sun. With stops in large cities such as Marseille (France), Barcelona (Spain), Calvià (Spain), Cagliari (Italy), and La Valette (Malta), the message of solar energy was delivered to the public and local governments. There was one difference during this campaign, the captain. Raphaël Domjan decided to leave the adventure to focus completely on his foundation’s activities which meant that a brand new crew, led by Eric Dumont, would now oversee the day-to-day operations on-board.

In 2013, the boat received a new lease of life and was adapted and upgraded to now act as a scientific research vessel. After six months of maintenance and optimisation works, specifically with her propulsion system, the MS Tûranor PlanetSolar began 2013 by once again crossing the Atlantic, this time in a Guinness World Record time of just 22 days (beating the previous record of 26 days).

After arriving in the Caribbean, the vessel moved on to Florida where it started the first of its scientific missions: PlanetSolar DeepWater. This mission, led by professor and climatologist Martin Beniston from the University of Geneva (UNIGE), fuelled the ambition to analyse processes with the ocean-atmosphere interface of the Gulf Stream involved in climate control.

Because the ship does not pollute and contaminate data collected, the scientific team collected a series of new physical and biological measurements from the sea and air.

While tracking the Gulf Stream, the boat travelled from Florida to Canada with stops in Miami, New York, Boston (US), Halifax, St John’s (Canada), returning to Europe stopping at Oostende (Belgium), London (UK), Paris (France), and Lorient (France), where she spent the winter.

By all accounts, the 2013 campaign was a resounding success. After more than 20,000 kilometres sailed, of which more than 8,000 were focused on science, the catamaran achieved its objective of demonstrating that she could go beyond her role as mobile ambassador for photovoltaic energy.

Today, the boat has travelled over 60,000km (37,000 miles), it has won numerous awards, it’s been featured in just about every news outlet in every country and, most importantly, it has showed that just how far solar power has come.

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