8 minutes reading time (1640 words)

Transforming India’s marine transport through solar ferries

Sandith Thandasherry, CEO, Navalt Solar & Electric Boats in his recently released book "Solar Electric Boats" discusses key aspects of solar boats, the Indian marine mobility sector, and the need for stakeholders to understand the fundamentals of solar-electric boats with Moulin Oza, Assistant Editor-ETN.

Sandith Thandasherry, CEO, Navalt Solar & Electric Boats

Congratulation on your book, Solar Electric Boats. Please tell our readers more about the book.

This book introduces solar boats and covers the various aspects to consider when making decisions. Each area requires further expansion with much reading and research; this book is merely a window to the vast knowledge that awaits an enthusiast.

The book took almost a year and many productive early morning sessions, 02:00-05:00 (coincides with the Brahma muhurta time). So many people helped me complete this work: my family, friends, colleagues, industry experts, and enthusiasts.

The primary target for this book is the marine transport system's decision-makers, advisors, and team, who need to understand the fundamentals of solar-electric boats. This book provides insights essential for when one encounters a decision in marine transport. It is also meant for other stakeholders in marine transport like operators, financiers, policymakers, government departments, and, finally, commuters and enthusiasts.

"Solar Electric Boats" book by Sandith Thandasherry

Please tell us about your motivation for writing this book for the industry.

When I look back to why I decided to write the book, I can think of four reasons.

  • Firstly, right from when I set out to make our first solar boat in 2009; there was not much reference material in books or other resources to provide insights and proper guidance. Not much has changed in the last twelve years. 
  • The second reason is that since the launch of ADITYA [India's first solar ferry], I have interacted with many decision-makers and enthusiasts. I felt that if I could convey the lessons, we learned over the years in a business language to them, then there is a good chance of improving the adoption of solar ferries.
  • Thirdly, in the last few years, there have been numerous choices in technology when one sets out to make solar-electric boats. However, a proper assessment of the technology and selecting them based on function need driven by economics is not available.
  • Lastly, I hope that if the policymakers and decision-makers could get a consolidated view of the benefits and impact of solar-electric boats, they would be more likely to support faster adoption and implantation of solar ferries.

What are the key takeaways for the readers from this book?

In the book, I have attempted to cover six broad points:

  • Get a clear answer to the question, "Why do we need solar boats?"
  • Understand the philosophy of solar boats and how it is different from fossil fuel boats.
  • List of all technology choices when we make a solar-electric boat.
  • Learn the step of the design and construction of a solar boat.
  • Understand the tests, trials, and post-delivery operations, maintenance of a solar-electric boat.
  • Learn about ADITYA, its impact, and the steps to be taken for faster adoption of solar-electric boats.
ADITYA: India's first solar-powered ferry operating between Vaikkom and Thavanakkadavu in Kerala. (Source: Navalt Solar & Electric Boats)

How would you define the market for solar electric boats in India? Why do we not see more of such solar ferries across India?

Solar electric boats have the potential for many applications in the marine transport sector. Passenger movement in the inland, port area and short sea passage on ferries, ROROs, tourist boats is one. India is a vast market. There are over hundreds of vessels built in India every year. This application has already established the economic benefit of going solar electric. Currently, about 100 solar electric boats are under construction or in the tender stage.

The small fishing boat is the next big area of application. There are 2.5 lakh small boats of thirty-foot size along the coast of India. Once we demonstrate the economics of a solar electric fishing boat, this market will open.

The other application that is still possible is harbor boats, pilot boats, workboats, tugs, which is merely awaiting adoption since the technology for the same is demonstrated in ferries. Once our high-speed solar electric harbor boat has been demonstrated at the end of the year, it might convince the users.

Despite showcasing the economic benefit of ferries, and leisure boats, decision-makers still go for diesel and petrol boats for these applications because of the following reasons:

  • Lack of availability of finance to pay for the additional 20-30 percent in upfront cost that is covered up with fuel savings in three to five years. The banking system does not finance boats like how they do for vehicles due to the Securitisation and Reconstruction of Financial Assets and Enforcement of Security Interest (SARFAESI) Act, 2002.
  • Regulations are either lax or not implemented in many states. This means that low-quality, unsafe boats can play in inland waters. If such an alternative exists, then the choice of solar-electric with high safety standards will never make economic sense.
  • There are no handholding and policy initiatives by the Central government and most state governments to ensure the adoption of solar electric boats.

Please tell us about the technology used in solar ferries. What kind of advancements can we expect in the future?

A good boat starts with a good design. When we made our solar ferry, the vessel was half the weight, 17 tonnes instead of 35 tonnes of comparable steel or wooden ferry. The power needed to move the fully loaded boat is only 16 kW at 6 knots compared to 50 kW for the existing boats. It was possible because of light materials like composite and aluminium instead of wood and steel, optimized structure design, and finally, highly refined underwater shape.

The solar-electric propulsion system has many technical decisions, starting from solar panels, through the battery, motors, and finally ending at the propeller. One of the critical aspects is the overall system safety. It is because escaping from a boat is much higher than a bus in an accident. Hence the standards need to be much higher than an electric bus. Our ferries also have redundancy in the system by having two independent power trains without interconnecting them for maximum safety and reliability. We use only safe Lithium iron phosphate (LFP) and Lithium-titanate (LTO) chemistry with cell-level monitoring and real-time remote monitoring for maximum protection.

Our system could be a pure solar-electric, serial hybrid, or parallel hybrid, depending on the application. We are working on hydrogen fuel cells and wind propulsion using suction sails.

Energy storage is one of the key enablers of clean mobility. What role does it play in marine transportation, especially solar ferries?

Energy storage is a critical element in clean mobility in marine transport until the energy can be generated (transformed) when the vessel is in operation. Unfortunately, that is not easy in marine transport, and hence most applications need energy storage. Depending on the application, the choice might vary. For most applications, it could be in the form of batteries. Where energy need is much higher due to the combination of speed and range, we could meet it with liquid fuels like hydrogen. However, even here, we might need batteries for managing the power requirement.

What kind of special incentive from the government is required to further encourage solar ferries?

Policy to push for solar-electric boats in government-controlled operations like defence, home, port, transport, tourism, and shipping ministries. The push can be prescribing the percentage of new vessels to be solar-electric. Many different types of ships can use electric power trains – passenger vessels, RORO vessels, pilot boats, harbor crafts, patrol boats, tug, supply vessels, fishing boats, and short-haul cargo vessels the application.

Policy to push for solar-electric boats in eco-sensitive regions. Many ecologically sensitive locations like lakes, dams, and forest areas must ban diesel and petrol boats to protect the ecosystem. Such a ban will encourage the industry to adopt solar-electric vessels in the region. Some well-known sites are Chilka lake, Sunderban delta, Ganga River, and Statue of Unity.

The FAME scheme provides handholding to ensure the increased adoption of electric vehicles. The Department of Heavy Industries can also bring out a similar system or extend one to promote solar-electric boats.

The shipping ministry offers a shipbuilding subsidy of 20 percent of value to the shipyards when building commercial vessels over 24 metres in length. The same assistance can be extended to solar-electric boats for a lower length requirement, say 12 metres.

Please tell us about your plans for the advancement of solar-powered marine mobility?

We are replicating our successful solar ferry model. In this year, we come out with twelve large ferries. We also have another ten small leisure lined up. Our new products - high-speed solar harbor boats and solar fishing boats will hit waters by the end of this year. We hope that these markets will also open. In addition, we are working on a few other applications like solar electric ROROs, hydrogen fuel cell ferries, and wind propulsion for large ships.

To enhance the speed of adoption of solar electric propulsion, we are partnering with other shipyards and boatyards to offer our solution. In this way, we are moving beyond being boat builders. Another model is forming subsidiaries in regions like West Asia, Southeast Asia, the Mediterranean, Africa, and the Americas. Here we create a partnership with local investment. Some of them will take shape this year.

The newer version of the ferry will keep having better features and higher performance. Our R&D division is constantly working on this front in cooperation with the operations and maintenance team.

Author : Moulin Oza
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