I Cécile Faure I October 2019 I
On October 4th, I had the chance to set a foot on Energy Observer. She had docked at St Katherine Pier by London Bridge the previous evening and was there to rest another ten days for the general public to discover, before returning to St Malo in France where she would undergo optimisation and upgrades prior to her next sailing campaign.
I must confess I was truly excited then and am still counting my blessing to have been on the deck and inside that lady of the ocean, extraordinary laboratory vessel contributing to research and innovation in energy transition and sustainable long term solutions.
Energy Observer is a boat, a massive catamaran of 30.50 m in length and 12.50 m at its largest width, with a draught of 3 m, to be more precise. She used to roam the oceans as a racing boat, first under the name of Formule Tag – built in 1983 in Quebec (Canada), according to the drawings of English architect Nigel Irens and under the close scrutiny of Canadian skipper Mike Birch. She had multiple owners, names and lives, and broke many world records: Trophée Jules Verne in 1994, Atlantic North Ocean Women Record in 1997, Atlantic South Ocean Record in 2005. She was eventually bought in 2015 and for two years went trough numerous physical transformations to become Energy Observer, a laboratory platform to serve the vision of Victorien Erussard (Founder and Chairman of the project, and her Captain) and Jérôme Delafosse (Expedition Leader and Film Director).
Both men have such pedigree that one can only bow to their passion for the Great Blue, and on this account both joined forces to find a way to restore and protect what is the cradle of life on our planet.
Beyond the infamous broadcasted Great Pacific Garbage Patch – first described in 1988 by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and ever growing since – and the deadly micro plastics and manmade fibbers contaminating in fact all the waters, ocean – and air – pollution is also the by-product of the marine transport industry’s use of fossil fuels.
And this is what Energy Observer is about: to limit if not stop this by providing a smart energy alternative to the private yachts, the ferries, the liners, the cargo carriers and the tankers as they are by large the very first mean of transport of people (tourism) and goods in the world – way before air, road or rail – and consequently one of the greatest source of pollution.
And according to the principles of scaling, to offer equal alternative technologies to other sectors of the economy – from power generation to mobility – in the urgency of addressing immediate climate change issues, beyond the political power struggles of fossil fuel resources and their inevitable reduced availability.
Energy Observer is a boat with a scientific endeavour; a project of sailing campaigns over six years, promoting its vision and meeting other pioneers (start-ups, researchers, investors, authorities) in the race to efficiently address environmental issues.
It started its journey by touring France in 2017 then roamed the Mediterranean Sea in 2018. For its third year, it chose the harsher climate conditions of Northern Europe, pushing to the Spitsbergen, and confronting its technologies to those developed in the region including Russia.
At the end of each campaign, she returns to Saint Malo where she undergoes thorough checks, where data are downloaded and analysed, where improvements are made and new technologies installed to test on her next journey. Energy Observer will be travelling the sevens seas, visiting the waters and shores of North-East Asia in 2020, of the Pacific and American West Coast in 2021, and of Central America and the American East Coasts in 2021.
Energy Observer is a fascinating constantly evolving collaborative enterprise, combining several technologies – wind, solar, fuel cell (lithium and hydrogen) – to observe and optimize their interaction – and is in fact the very first autonomous vessel producing its own hydrogen by seawater electrolysis.
On wind, Energy Observer has tested vertical axis wind turbines for energy production, a not so efficient traction wing to reduce its energy consumption, and in 2019, the two imposing Oceanwings®, designed by VPLP design and co-developed with CNIM. Each wing – of 31.5 m2, able to rotate on a 360° angle and furlable – is used to both propel and provide clean energy for hydrogen production.
On solar, every flat surface of the vessel is covered with small square solar panels, including the roof-windows where the panels are then made transparent to allow light to go through. In total, 168 m2 giving 28 kWc (kilowattcrete, i.e. the peak power produced in optimal conditions).
On fuel cell and hydrogen, this is by far one of the most promising technology developments that would not only provide a long-term solution for the maritime industry, but on land too.
Since 2018, Energy Observer has produced 488 Kg of hydrogen, and been relying upon two types of energy storage – lithium-ion batteries and hydrogen, the latter being lighter and far more efficient, and providing 60% of the energy required during navigation.
Both Victorien Erussard and Jérome Delafosse will tell you that the aim is not to produce hydrogen on board but to offer a clean reliable solution to all those ships that roam the oceans and rejects large quantities of CO2, as well as particles of Nitrogen oxide and Sulfur oxide, and Black Carbon.
But so much is left to be done. And not only on the science front.
During the press conference, Francesco La Camera, Director of International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA; headquartered in Abu Dhabi) stressed: “Time is of the essence. Only renewables are the solution with regards to the time left” before we reach that point of no return of what would be unbearable for the planet. “Any other solution, including building new nuclear plants, are too long to implement” and to conclude “Your cause is noble” addressing Energy Observer’s team and partners.
Kitack Lim, Secretary-General of the International Maritime Organisation (IMO; headquartered in London), added that indeed what Energy Observer are trying to demonstrate is the pathway to a cleaner and sustainable future for the sector, however conceding that changing regulation would be part of the implementation, as raising awareness might not be enough to shift already planned developments and investments.
Energy Observer will continue its voyage through invention, innovation and the oceans. Jérome Delafosse brings on board his long experience of making documentaries, and in collaboration with Canal+ has already produced 8 films of 52 minutes broadcasted in France, announces another 10, and will continue to participate in sharing information under several formats (live communications on the social networks and short films on a digital platform www.energy-observer.media). When asked, Jérôme Delafosse hopes to distribute the documentaries beyond the Hexagone.
As for me, beyond this close encounter of the future, I will also cherish having been on board of a beautiful ship , where even the elegant design of the cabins is a testimonial that advances in technologies and science research does not have to be to the detriment of comfort!