Thursday, August 23, 2012

Around The World With Solar

The Turanor in Valletta Harbour, Malta.

For those who worry that fighting climate change means sacrificing comfort, the luxurious Turanor might be a revelation.  The world's biggest solar-powered vessel, run by Planet Solar from Switzerland, returned to the Mediterranean in May, after completing the first-ever round-the-world fueled solely by solar energy.

Captain Eric Dumont, standing on the deck of the ship on top of the panels explains,
"Its time to realize it is a lot of pollution everywhere, and this boat is a messenger and maybe an alarm to say stop pollution on this planet."

The name Turanor comes from JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings saga, and means "the power of the sun".  And that power is precisely what the 32 meter ship is intended to showcase. This summer, it’s traveling to cities in the Mediterranean like Valletta, Malta. Each stop attracts a crowd of reporters and government ministers eager to see how it works. Captain Dumont, sitting up in the futuristic ship’s cockpit explains the local reaction: “They are looking at us like a hero from the new modern times, just because we decided to respect and use this solar energy"

The ship's systems are simple at first glance.  Sunshine falls on 537 square meters of solar panels, made by the company Sunpower.  They’re the world’s most efficient -- converting about 18% of the energy into electricity, which charges two huge 6 ton lithium ion batteries in each of the hulls.  When captain Eric Dumont pushes the throttle forward, power is transferred to the two electric motors, which turn special low-speed propellers.  The 91-ton boat can travel for three days on the batteries without getting any charge from the sun, but there is a surprising problem with the power system.

"It's not complicated to understand,” He says with a smile, “we have too much sun.  Because for sure these batteries are full all the time, so we have to cut, we have to stop the charge, you know, sometimes.  So the problem is too much energy."

The ship is a traveling experiment. Technicians in Switzerland monitor the boat via satellite around the clock. Data from its round-the-world trip will be used to improve the technology, increasing its speed, for example. Right now it travels at a stately four knots.

It might not be fast, but it’s very quiet. The Turanor is practically silent as it moves past ancient walls, around the breakwater and out to sea. Leaving Valletta harbor through the gates of the city built by the knights of St John, the ship’s captain says it’s easy to forget you’re traveling on a state of the art machine.

Looking out onto the ocean, Captain Dumont waxes philosophical, "It is my dream to be on the sea.  I have been on the sea since I was two years old. It's nice to be silent on the sea, we can see dolphins, we can see whales, very close, every day.  So this boat is very perfect to be in harmony, you can think you can dream.  For me, it is the best job in the world".

Friday, August 10, 2012

Sexy, Fit and Happy To Run

The Turanor solar sailing vessel in Valletta, Malta. 

The crew gets the vessel ready to get under way in Malta.

Capitan Eric Dumont (holding the plaque) together with the Sunpower team.

From the water the ship looms high in the air.  Built of carbon fiber and powered by four electric engines, the ship is a high-tech example of what humanity can achieve by using the latest clean-energy solutions in transport and fabrication.  It looks cool too.
I caught up the Planet Solar team in the Valletta harbor, where she was parked beneath the bastions of the old castle of the Knights of St John.  This unique ship holds the world records for the fastest crossing of the Atlantic Ocean by solar boat and the longest distance ever covered by a solar electric vehicle.  It was built by Immo Stroher, a German investor who partnered with Swiss adventurer Raphael Domjan.  It is meant to show what solar power can already do, and is an ambassador for solar energy on a "victory lap" through the Mediterranean sea during the summer of 2012, carrying the banner for renewable energy to places like Malta, which currently generates most of its power by burning fuel oil.  In the next week I will explain more about this remarkable achievement, but in the meantime I wanted to share these images from the deck of the Turanor. 

The boat is an ambassador for solar power, a proof-of concept designed to showcase to the world what renewable energy can accomplish.  Wherever it goes people talk about, photograph it, and it helps create a dialogue about what can be done with today's technologies when they are implemented in new ways.

537 square meters of solar panels power the ship.  It has no back-up diesel power of any kind.  The lights of Valletta at night are reflected in the coating of the panels.  The ship can operate for days without sunlight on just the batteries alone.

The cockpit shines red at night, lit by navigation-grade LED lighting systems.  When Captain Eric Dumont arrived at the wharf, the attendant asked him what kind of shore power the boat takes, Eric offered to give the island power from his own batteries.

The Turanor just after sunset.  The boat is heavy, about 82 metric tons, and made to slice through the water using it's sharp pontoons.  Inside the pontoons are six and half tons of lithium ion batteries, each.

Sunpower manufactures the solar panels on the ship, and maintains that the panels can still generate power even when the sun is low in the sky like this. 

The ship navigating out of Valletta harbor.  The ship runs slowly, using a minimum of power.  It can go about 14 knots, but usually navigates at about 4-7, carefully structuring it's use of power. 

Leaving Valletta, the capital of Malta.  The ship needs only a crew of four, but can travel with as many as forty people on board.

All Images Copyright Jeffrey Barbee/

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Colorado's High Country In Pictures

The past few months I have had a chance to spend some time in Colorado where I was born.  I have been hiking, biking, even driving around this amazing state.  Most people know about the wildfires that struck the eastern part of the state this year, driving hundreds of thousands of people from their homes.  But the Western Slope, across the Continental Divide, managed to dodge that bullet, and got some much-needed rainfall by July.  Still, Climate Change has hit Colorado with a vengeance.  Longer and hotter summers not only make the forest susceptible to forest fires, but provide for an extra generation of Pine Beetles to thrive.  These beetles attack water and pollution-stressed forests all the time, but now that the summer season is at least a month longer due to warmer summers, they have a chance to spawn further generations.

According to a new study by scientists from the University of Colorado, what this means is if you have twenty pine beetles born in May, they would normally die before spawning, but now they are being born in April, then grow, make Pine Beetle love, and manage to spawn another generation, so each of those twenty beetles spawn twenty of their own, so instead of 20, you have 400 of the pine-munching little ones.  So Colorado's forests are dying, and it is tough to watch them go.  In the Vail valley, according to this report in Ski magazine, they will lose 80% of all their pine trees.  But there are some interesting points.  One is that the beetles won't kill all the trees, only about 4/5s of the old ones.  Young ones can resist the attack.  Less pine trees often mean more of the gorgeous Aspen trees, which create more open woodlands that in turn support many more species of plants and animals.  According to other reports, like this one from the High Country News, all those dead trees also open up forests, create diverse habitats, and surprisingly don't add fuel to future fire threats.

Colorado's vast forests of pine trees, like this one above Leadville, are beginning to disappear.

A Pine Tree in the Frying Pan River Valley ravaged by Pine Beetles.

As the pine trees pass away, eventually they will be replaced by Aspen trees like these ones, or so it is hoped.

The snow covered mountains of Lamborn, left, and Landsend, right stand proud in the spring air above the North Fork Valley where I grew up.

Maroon Bells lake reflects the top of Highlands Ski area in the far distance above Aspen, Colorado.

Maroon Bells Lake with the top of the 14,000 ft tall Pyramid Peak.  It is possible that this rock came all the down from near the summit of this high mountain.

The lower of the three main Frying Pan Lakes in the Frying Pan wilderness.  The Continental Divide is at the top of the ridge on the far right of the image.

The highest of the Frying Pan Lakes.  Lakes like these are Tarn lakes, formed when the Glaciers pushed up a damn-wall in this huge valley.

The mily Way Galaxy framed by a rank of pine trees in Colorado's high Rocky Mountains, more than six hours hike from the nearest road of any kind.

The Carbondale Rodeo, int he Roaring For Valley.  Colorado ranchers love their rodeo.

Independence Pass in Colorado, to left of the picture water flows to the Mississippi River, to the right it flows down into the Colorado River.  This is the Continental Divide.
Whatever the long-term Climate Change threat is to our high-country in Colorado, there are still some stunning places, and I put together a selection of some of my favorite ones here in pictures.  I send out a special thank you to everyone who hosted me and supported the launch of Alliance Earth, and a very special thank you to my parents who helped instil in me a love of nature, wild places and environmental stewardship.