When the sun powers you around the world

By Dev Nadkarni

A futuristic, streamlined piece of kit clad in arrays of thousands of deep blue photovoltaic cells is traversing the southern Pacific Ocean this month, on its way to becoming the first ever solar powered vessel to circumnavigate the globe.

Beginning its journey in Monaco on September 27 last year, the Planet Solar Turanor has crossed the Atlantic Ocean, the Panama Canal and half of the Pacific Ocean so far in just over 200 days, calling at ports all along its route that tends to stay as close to the equator as possible. Over the next few weeks, it will make stops in New Caledonia and Brisbane before continuing on its final leg back to Europe.

“It all began as an idea. We knew the technologies for such undertaking such a mission existed. It was a question of putting it all together and making it work,” says Raphael Domjan, the Planet Solar project’s Swiss initiator and the vessel’s co-skipper, speaking to Indian Weekender in the Tongan capital Nuku’alofa recently.

Germany based Swedish renewable energy technologies entrepreneur Immo Stroher bought the idea because he believes “it is possible to achieve commercially realistic earnings over the long term with advanced technologies.” The US$ 22 million Turanor was built in Kiel in Germany from solar technology components and propulsion equipment sourced from all over Europe. “Some of the parts came from all over the world,” Mr Domjan said.

The co-skipper and some of his crew were taking a breather in Tonga last week while the Turanor was undergoing unexpected maintenance work in Bora Bora in French Polynesia. “It’s nothing to do with the solar system,” Mr Domjan assured. “There was an issue with the pitch control of one of the two propellers. A totally mechanical issue, which needed to be tuned to gain better energy efficiencies.”
This was the first time the vessel had hit a hitch after its incident free voyage half way across the globe.

The Swiss-flagged 31-metre wave-piercer twin-hulled carbon fibre catamaran derives its name from J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, which means “power of the sun”. The vessel isn’t calling on the shores of the country where the famous films were made but the Turanor’s design originated in New Zealand. LOMOcean Design – which also designed the Earthrace/Ady Gil – designed the vessel’s naval architecture, styling and structural engineering.

At an efficiency rate of 22%, the solar cells that power the Turanor’s twin motor propulsion system are the highest rated photovoltaic cells available for purchase in the open market. Some 36,000 of these are spread over a surface area of more than 500 square metres of the vessel.

Under ideal conditions, the Turanor coasts along at 14 knots. “But that is the maximum speed. We have to often run at lower speeds depending on the conditions as well as the intensity of sunlight available,” Mr Domjan said.

With the array of lithium ion batteries on board, the Turanor can sail for up to five nights without direct sunlight. “This period can be stretched if we drop the cruising speed. For example sailing at 5 knots will keep us going for 10 days,” Mr Domjan added.

Purpose built weather and tidal forecasting software that works in tandem with the vessel’s geo-positioning and navigation systems helps predict the intensity of sunshine over the next several days. This helps make course corrections in the route dynamically to achieve the highest degree of energy efficiency, Mr Domjan said.

The boat has stirred great interest wherever it has stopped to showcase its state of art propulsion and navigational technology. “There is a great deal of interest. But this is very much a learning experience,” Mr Domjan said. “So much data is being continuously collected that when we finish the mission and analyse it, we will be able to decide on a future mission and how it needs to be improved over this one.”

As well as governments, there have been inquiries from private individuals in Europe and the United States wishing to add a solar powered yacht to their fleet. “But if it works well, and we can think in terms of a production model, it will benefit people of remote tropical islands the most,” Mr Domjan said.
‘Aka’oula, who heads the Tongan government’s energy sector reform programme agreed. “Spiraling costs of oil are rapidly driving up inter-island transport costs. Any alternative technology that will mitigate the situation is welcome,” he says.

The Tongan government hosted an alternative energy expo in Nuku’alofa to coincide with Turanor’s arrival to focus the Pacific Island Forum members’ attention on alternative energy.

Pacific Island governments were keen on watching the progress of Planet Solar and Turanor’s progress toward developing a production model that would be well suited to their local and regional transportation needs.

First appeared in Indian Weekender, May 2011