Clean energy journalism for a cooler tomorrow

This boat runs on 100% renewables. Can it help clean up bigger ships?

The Energy Observer has sailed the world as a floating lab of zero-emission technologies. Now its owners want to apply what they’ve learned to dirty freighters.
By Maria Gallucci

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Aerial photo of the Energy Observer, a boat powered by hydrogen and other renewable energy sources,
(Pitcha Dangprasith/Getty Images)

NEW YORK CITY — Climbing aboard the Energy Observer requires actually climbing on and over an array of cutting-edge clean energy solutions.

The French research vessel recently arrived at a small Manhattan marina on the Hudson River. For the past seven years, Energy Observer has traveled around the world, serving as a floating test bed for zero-emission technologies that can propel boats and ships — without spewing any of the nasty pollution that comes from running diesel engines.

On a drizzly mid-April morning, George Conty, one of its five crew members, led a group of visitors across the narrow catamaran.

Barefooted, we treaded cautiously over flexible solar panels covered with nonstick coating. The small blue squares, along with other rows of double-sided solar panels, carpet some 2,100 square feet of the vessel’s exterior. The electricity they produce charges a 106-kilowatt-hour stack of lithium-ion batteries, which in turn drive the electric motors.

Next, we shimmied sideways around one of two ocean wings,” the high-tech, self-adjusting sails that propel the vessel forward by harnessing the wind. Then we clambered down a tiny ladder into the hull, where a 70-kilowatt fuel cell — adapted from Toyota’s Mirai sedan — uses hydrogen to generate 1 megawatt-hour of electricity and 1 megawatt-hour of heat. That hydrogen is made right on the catamaran, by desalinating seawater and running it through electrolyzers; the H2 is then stored in eight cylindrical tanks, which can hold a total of 62 kilograms of compressed gas.

The Energy Observer arrived in New York City on April 10, 2024, making one of the final stopovers in the seven-year journey. (Agathe Roullin/Energy Observer Productions)

This fossil-free assemblage can provide all the energy that’s needed for weeks on end, although that requires constantly balancing supply and demand. When asked what the crew gives up first when the solar-power production is low, Conty quickly replied, Comfort.” A dark or cloudy day can mean taking cold showers or forgoing kitchen appliances like the toaster and espresso machine.

As it happens, in 2021 my colleague Julian Spector visited the 100-foot-long vessel during its first U.S. stopover, at the Port of Long Beach in California. My tour in New York City took place during one of its last — not just in the United States, but ever.

Later this spring, the crew will sail Energy Observer home to France for good, after making nearly 100 port calls and logging 64,000 nautical miles. The project’s leaders say they’re now ready to focus their efforts on cleaning up much larger and dirtier types of vessels, including cargo ships.

Beatrice Cordiano, the onboard scientist, said that one of Energy Observer’s main goals has been to develop and test different low-carbon technologies … to prove that this mix of renewable energy sources and storage is a way to accelerate the energy transition, both on land and at sea.”

We’re going to have an even bigger effect once we shift to a bigger scale,” she told me as we looked out on the mud-brown waters of the marina.

The team is pivoting as momentum continues to build globally for decarbonizing the world’s maritime fleet. Regulatory agencies, companies, and consumer groups are all working, to varying degrees, to slash pollution from the commercial vessels that haul billions of tons of cargo and move millions of people across the ocean every year.

All told, the global shipping industry accounts for about 3 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions annually. The vast majority of those and other health-harming emissions come from burning enormous amounts of heavy diesel fuel in powerful engines.

Many efforts to ditch diesel in ships and ports are early-stage and uncertain. Still, they represent tangible progress within the industry — very little of which was underway when Energy Observer first launched from Saint-Malo, France, in April 2017.

In 2018, for example, the U.N. agency that governs global shipping agreed for the first time to limit carbon dioxide emissions from ocean-crossing vessels. Last year regulators voted again to strengthen those targets. On the technology side, the shipping giant Maersk recently unveiled the world’s biggest container ship powered by methanol, a low-carbon fuel that can be made using renewable energy. In the U.S., the Port of San Diego is preparing to launch the nation’s first all-electric tugboat, while San Francisco is set to sail America’s first hydrogen-powered passenger ferry.

Then there’s the Energy Observer project. Seated in a café overlooking the Manhattan marina, captain and founder Victorien Erussard said his team has been working for the past two years to design and build what he called Energy Observer 2.”

The second vessel will hardly resemble the first. Instead, the next iteration will be a 520-foot-long cargo ship powered by 11 fuel cells and tanks of liquid hydrogen. No freighter like this exists today. Nor are commercial supplies of green hydrogen — made using renewable electricity and water — available anywhere at any reasonable quantity or price. The catamaran can make its own H2, but producing hydrogen aboard a freighter isn’t technically feasible for now.

This is an ambitious project,” Erussard said, highlighting the obvious. But it’s one the team believes is possible. Their goal is to launch the first-of-its-kind ship in 2028.

As Erussard and his partners work to sort out the engineering and financial hurdles facing their next project, the first Energy Observer will be enjoying a leisurely retirement in France.

After departing the United States in the coming weeks, the catamaran will return for a spell to Saint-Malo, before making its way to Paris for the 2024 Summer Olympics. There, visitors will have a final chance to see the floating clean-energy laboratory firsthand.

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Maria Gallucci is a senior reporter at Canary Media. She covers emerging clean energy technologies and efforts to electrify transportation and decarbonize heavy industry.