Energy Observer: on a course of sharing
The August sun sets over the Bay of Naples. Moored in the Port of Salerno, at the foot of Mount Vesuvius, Energy Observer illuminates the twilight with its fascinating beam of midnight blue light. As at every stop, the silhouette of the 30-meter catamaran mesmerizes countless passersby in the marina. And for good reason: the ship, with its hull covered in solar panels and two wind turbines rising from its bridge, seems like something out of a sci-fi movie. This is stop 27 of 100 on a round-the-world trip that will take the boat to every continent, all with zero carbon emissions. As they do at every port of call, the crew answers questions from curious visitors to their traveling village assembled at every stop. It’s the perfect chance to meet the heroes of this odyssey and discover the first lessons from the adventure…
After visiting nearly 14 countries, Energy Observer has all but wrapped up the Mediterranean leg of its voyage. The ship, which was launched from Saint-Malo in July 2017, completed the entire trip while running solely on renewable energies. No mast or combustion engine aboard this boat. Instead, top-of-the-line photovoltaic solar panels cover 140 square meters of the hull, while two vertical axis wind turbines harness the power of the ocean breeze.
New encounters and solidarity
Working together, these different systems enable Energy Observer to achieve an average speed of 4.7 knots. That is the speed at which the ship has trekked across 8,740 nautical miles since its launch in the bay of Saint-Malo. Victorien Erussard, a former merchant marine and the ship’s captain, recalls the distance travelled since that first day, and looks back on the first months of sailing.
“The gas will then be shipped to ports, compressed and distributed through a fast charging process that will take just minutes. The ship will only carry the hydrogen storage tank and the fuel cell to redistribute the energy.”
“Hitting the high seas without stopping off at the gas pump was an incredible experience for me. There is something magical about drawing our energy from nature and leaving no footprint in our wake. As someone who has spent a lot of time aboard gas-powered boats, I have always been concerned about the problems tied to fossil fuels: heavy fuel oil is responsible for an enormous quantity of emissions, which notably affect people living near ports and the coast.”
“Hydrogen enables us to unlock a significant power savings.”
A year and a half later, the ship has crisscrossed the Mediterranean, dropping anchor at almost 30 ports in the region: Tunisia, Malta, Israel, Cyprus, the Greek islands, Montenegro, Croatia and the list goes on. Each stop affords an opportunity to meet the pioneers who are innovating in every country to prepare for a cleaner future: scientists, NGOs, businesses, politicians and decision-makers. “One of the goals of this adventure is to build a community without borders, which grows larger with every stopover. We notably met with Archipelagos, an NGO fighting pollution in the Aegean Sea, whose representatives were thrilled to climb aboard Energy Observer”, explains Victorien.
In addition to these ambassadors, Victorien and his crew have met thousands of curious onlookers. Jérôme Delafosse, Energy Observer’s Expedition Leader, underlines the critical importance of the odyssey’s educational aspect. “The Mediterranean encompasses three continents, 23 countries, and a wide range of development levels. But everywhere we went, people learned something new about the environment. When it comes to sustainability, we are all developing countries. We have our work cut out for us, solutions are in reach”, he relates with enthusiasm. “However, we noticed that a majority of people know almost nothing about hydrogen”, he explains. “Many people think hydrogen is just a combustible fuel like any other. We need to do much more to explain its potential and how it can help transform the current energy model.”
A technological feat
To understand the crucial role this gas plays in the Energy Observer adventure, we have to delve into the ship’s inner workings. While solar and wind power the ship during daylight hours, hydrogen picks up the slack overnight and on overcast days. Surplus renewable power is converted into hydrogen via electrolysis using desalinated seawater. That hydrogen is then compressed to 350 bars and stored onboard the ship. The same gas later serves to recover the energy by means of a fuel cell.
“This boat is the result of many years of research and work. The CEA’s experience in hydrogen played a decisive role”
“Two solutions exist for generating electric propulsion: batteries and hydrogen”, explains Victorien. “The first months of the adventure confirmed my belief that the second option is the future of energy for maritime transport. To obtain an equivalent storage capacity with battery, our boat would weigh 44 metric tons, compared to just 14 today. Hydrogen enables us to unlock a significant power savings.”
Let’s go down to the engine room: this is the domain of Hugo Devedeux, the ship’s systems engineer. He knows all the ins and outs of this complex energy chain, which he helped design alongside some of the leading talent at the CEA. “This boat is the result of many years of research and work. The CEA’s experience in hydrogen played a decisive role”, he explains. That played out against a backdrop of exceptionally complex constraints. “For a prototype, we typically build the vehicle around the powertrain. With Energy Observer, it was just the opposite: we salvaged a catamaran built in 1983 and had to fit all the elements inside the hull… One of the biggest challenges was fitting all the parts into this tight and unusual space.”
Upgrading the adventure
The opening months of the odyssey offered a chance to test the prototype in real-life sailing conditions, which packs its share of surprises. “We always run into technical difficulties. It’s part of the process. We had problems with the cooling pumps and the solar panels… That’s how it goes with every prototype! The important part is knowing how to repair things so we can continue our world tour. ” The only problem Hugo still hasn’t mastered is the seasickness that continues to plague him while sailing…
“The immediate impact of our energy usage on our cruising speed enabled us to adjust our behaviors and become more energy efficient: opting for salads at lunch, making coffee together, keeping showers short…”
But the crew is already looking ahead to the next leg of their trip. In the Mediterranean Sea, the ship’s solar panels operated at full capacity, providing Energy Observer with an abundant and stable source of energy… But the next step in their world tour will take them to the North Sea, with significantly fewer sunshine hours in the day. That will give them yet another opportunity to rely on hydrogen and test out new solutions. “Ideally, we would like to upgrade our electric propulsion system with underwater pods and improve our wind propulsion system”, specifies Victorien.
“When it comes to life on board, we all have to stick together: it’s a bit like having roommates where everyone helps each other out for the common good”
Winter is the season devoted to major renovations to upgrade the prototype. Between 2017 and 2018, Energy Observer already increased its solar capacity and modified the operation of its fuel cell. “It’s a long-term project, and certainly not set in stone”, observes Hugo. “It’s not out of the question that we might switch our hydrogen compression from 350 bars to 700 bars, as is standard on most vehicles running on this molecule.”
Rethinking our relationship to energy
Indeed, Energy Observer’s energy output is a central aspect of daily life for the crew of six people on board the catamaran. Life on the ship is regulated by the rhythm of the watch: the two-hour period during which crew members take care of specific activities.
While certain tasks, such as maintaining the machines, are better left to specialists, most are assigned on a turn-by-turn basis. Cleaning, cooking, sailing: everybody has to roll up their sleeves and pitch in. “Everyone takes the helm once or twice a day”, explains Amélie Conty, onboard reporter producing a series of stories on Energy Observer. “When it comes to life on board, we all have to stick together: it’s a bit like having roommates where everyone helps each other out for the common good”, she smiles.
Above all, these daily activities give the crew a chance to rethink their relationship to energy. “During the first weeks at sea, we realized that life on board used up more energy than the engines. That really made us stop and think”, explains Hugo, who put in place a system for keeping the ship’s energy usage at a constant rate. That realization forced the entire crew to change their habits. “In short, whenever we make coffee, the boat automatically slows down in order to compensate for the energy usage”, adds Jérôme. “The immediate impact of our energy usage on our cruising speed enabled us to adjust our behaviors and become more energy efficient: opting for salads at lunch, making coffee together, keeping showers short…”
A veritable floating laboratory, Energy Observer has also swept away certain doubts and confirmed several intuitions in its year and a half at sea. “When we first outlined our energy model, I wondered if we were on the right path”, remembers Victorien. “Now I know that hydrogen is the energy of the future.” Hugo is convinced, too: the gas is poised to replace fossil fuels, even if the boats of the future will not necessarily resemble Energy Observer. “Our special feature is that we carry the entire energy chain on board. In the future, hydrogen will be produced on land, where there are no weight limits, at massive solar plants or wind farms. The gas will then be shipped to ports, compressed and distributed through a fast charging process that will take just minutes. The ship will only carry the hydrogen storage tank and the fuel cell to redistribute the energy.”
Actually, a whole ecosystem shares the belief that hydrogen has a role to play to achieve a successful energy transition: the CEA of course, but also researchers and industrial partners such as Air Liquide. And this ecosystem keeps growing, thanks to all those Energy Observer has met and convinced by its sheer own example.
On the horizon, a cleaner future beckons…
As they wait for the expansion of hydrogen propulsion to reach merchant ships and yachts, it is time for the Energy Observer crew to set sail for Bastia and the French Riviera, where they will spend the rest of summer. On the horizon, a cleaner future beckons…