Like long-haul trucks that sit idling at rest areas, ships burn fuel to maintain on-board systems when they are at port. But just like some of the plug-in and clean idling solutions that are popping-up in the trucking world, shore-to-ship electricity is emerging as a more efficient, and arguably cleaner, way of providing power to ships while they are in port. For example, during a 10-hour port stay, the diesel engines of a single cruise ship can burn 20 metric tons of fuel and produce 60 metric tons of CO2. Linking one cruise ship at port to the electricity grid could be the equivalent of taking somewhere between two and five thousand cars off the road.
But Raphaël Domjan, the founder and expedition leader of Planetsolar, the solar-powered expedition-at-sea currently attempting to be the first solar-powered boat to circumnavigate the globe, envisions a future where boats can not only be the recipients of DC power while they are at port, but they can also be power providers by putting excess electricity back on the grid.
While touring the While touring the Turanor Planetsolar, docked outside the World Future Energy Summit in Abu Dhabi last month, I asked Domjan if he could envision a scenario where a solar-powered boat might be able to put power back on the grid during a long port stay. "Of course," Domjan said enthusiastically. "We have a huge battery, this is already a hybrid boat. Because if we have too much energy we can fill the grid. Or if we need some energy, we can charge the battery."
Domjan made a point to emphasize that during this trip, however, the boat has effectively disabled the ability to receive a charge from the grid in order to prove the viability of a solar-only voyage.
Granted, the Turanor is not a freight vessel or a cruise ship. Designed as a light, high-performance, carbon fiber vessel by LOMOcean Design—the same designers of Earthrace, which first reached notoriety after setting the world speed record for circumnavigation of the globe in 2008, and then for joining the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society fleet and sinking after a collision with a Japanese whaling vessel in 2010—The Turanor was designed with efficiency of energy production and efficiency of energy use as paramount. But simply being able to demonstrate the viability of feeding the electric grid with electricity produced by a docked boat at port is a monumental step for the maritime industry, according to expedition leader Domjan.
"Our project is more to show what we can do. To have an optimistic point of view of the situation," Domjan explained. "And of course that is a challenge but also an opportunity. And that is what we want and try to do with this project."
Connecting boats connecting to the electricity grid is not an entirely new practice. In the U.S., electric docks have been used on the west coast for the last decade but a newly-retrofitted terminal in New York City will be the East Coast's first electric cruise ship dock. While the direct current in these systems will almost always pass from shore to ship, new power centers on-board ships as well as on-shore at ports, will facilitate energy flows in both directions should the solar boat phenomenon ever pick up steam.
Whether the future of solar boats is in water taxis like those made by Grove Boats, or multi-million dollar, high-performance yachts like the PlanetSolar Turanor, one thing is certain, there will be a market them: especially as technology improves, costs drop, and as the maritime industry turns a critical eye to the massive footprint left by the industry's considerable fossil fuel reliance.
PlanetSolar, which began its voyage in Monaco in September of 2010 and has been at sea or in ports of call around the world for the year-and-a-half since, is on the very last leg of its voyage. But the last leg will also be one of the trickiest, and not because of poor solar or other adverse meteorological conditions. The last leg is so difficult because the boat must navigate the pirate-infested waters off the coast of Somalia. "Crossing the Gulf of Aden will be one of the most difficult and dangerous navigation of our fantastic adventure," Domjan wrote in the captain's online log book, the last entry before the boat went into self-imposed communications silence in early February.