A thing of sheer beauty is berthed in Victoria Harbor in Hong Kong: the Tûranor PlanetSolar, a vessel that is circumnavigating the globe to prove that solar energy can power water transportation.
Designed in New Zealand, built in Germany and flying a Swiss flag, the 102-foot boat has completed about two-thirds of a voyage that began in Monaco last September. So far it has sailed nearly 24,000 miles.
With its upper deck covered with over 5,300 square feet of photovoltaic solar panels, the Tûranor PlanetSolar is unlike any ship you’ve ever seen. Sleek and sexy, it looks more like a spaceship than something that travels the seven seas.
It has journeyed across the Atlantic to Miami and on to places including the Panama Canal, the Galapagos Islands, eastern Australia and the Philippines. Next week it leaves Hong Kong for Singapore before heading to Mumbai, Abu Dhabi and back into the Mediterranean via the Suez Canal.
Throughout the journey, the four-person crew is monitoring the performance of the panels and of lithium batteries that store solar energy and allow the ship to continue sailing through the night, or when the sky is overcast, at a speed of up to about 15 miles per hour. So far, said the skipper, Erwann Le Rouzic, everything has gone smoothly.
“I feel like a mouse in a laboratory which is being used to test what can be done with solar energy,” Mr. Le Rouzic joked at a media briefing here in Hong Kong.
To be sure, the Tûranor PlanetSolar, financed by various sponsors, is a scientific experiment rather than something that will be mass-produced for commercial use. Moreover, its route does not stray far from the equator to ensure that a maximum amount of sunlight is available — hardly an option for the commercial shipping industry.
Still, the industry has been testing different technologies that could complement fuel-based propulsion, and solar could well play a role, said Arthur Bowring, managing director of the Hong Kong Shipowners Association, one of the largest associations of its kind.
The PlanetSolar project, founded by Raphaël Domjan, a former ambulance driver, mountain guide and rescue specialist, hopes to hammer home that message.
“It doesn’t have to be as extreme as us,” said Mr. Le Rouzic, “with 100 percent solar, but you could have a proportion of solar power, which would also help reduce emissions.”
For residents of Hong Kong, which sits alongside one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world and suffers from high pollution levels nearly year-round, Mr. Le Rouzic’s point about emissions may be well taken. As I’ve written here before, shipping fuel contains far more nitrogen and sulfur than gasoline for cars does, resulting in especially nasty emissions.