By Emily Vidovich. Emily has a background in environmental journalism and sustainability and is a member of the George Washington University Class of 2019.
On April 28th, the first zero-emissions ocean vessel to be completely self-sufficient in energy production docked at AltaSea in the Port of Los Angeles. The catamaran, named the Energy Observer, creates and stores its own hydrogen, solar, wind, and hydro power onboard. The Energy Observer advocates for the future of renewable energy and serves as a floating laboratory for the ecological transition needed to restructure humanity’s relationship with our planet.
Since 2017, the France-based Energy Observer has been sailing around the world conducting onboard research and educating people worldwide about hydrogen power. The catamaran uses its 60 computers and 1,700 sensors to collect data that can be used by the suppliers of the boat’s green technology.
Louis-Noël Viviès, the general manager of the Energy Observer, jokes that the intense and variable conditions of the ocean result in the ultimate “torture chamber” in which to put technology to the test. He states that the goal is to provide information that helps companies make their technology simple, lightweight, and affordable, so that renewable energy innovations can be more widely used.
Above all, the boat showcases what is possible in a future that harnesses hydrogen power. Brian Goldstein of Energy Independence Now (EIN), a nonprofit advancing hydrogen-powered vehicles and renewable infrastructure, describes hydrogen power as the “swiss army knife” of energy.
“[Hydrogen] has very diverse applications,” he explained in a speech at the Energy Observer welcome event that EIN co-hosted with AltaSea.
The appeal of hydrogen power lies in its ability to be stored long-term, as well as in its lightweight yet energy-dense nature. Hydrogen’s advantage over other renewable energy sources is its lack of dependence on natural variables. While the amount of energy harvested from the sun and wind can vary based on daily weather conditions, hydrogen power can be created at a consistent rate.
These characteristics position hydrogen to potentially be a zero-emissions rebuttal to claims that renewables alone cannot power the world. Hydrogen power can provide a carbon-free means to support the energy grids of population centers at times when other renewable sources are limited, such as at night or on days when there is no wind. Hydrogen can also directly power cars, trucks, and boats. Because it is so dynamic, hydrogen could supplant fossil fuels and strengthen grids powered entirely by renewable energy.
But in order for hydrogen to be a zero-emissions fuel source, it must be produced using renewable resources. Currently, 95 percent of hydrogen produced in the United States is obtained through an emissions-heavy process called steam-methane reforming. Many facilities that utilize the alternative process of hydrogen electrolysis, which does not create greenhouse gas emissions itself, are still powered by electricity obtained from fossil fuels. However, this does not have to be the case—the creation of “green” hydrogen at plants fueled by renewable energy is gaining traction globally.
The Energy Observer promotes the adoption of zero-emissions hydrogen power. The boat’s hydrogen electrolyzer is fueled by electricity sourced from the solar energy created onboard. The electrolyzer first desalinates seawater, then uses electricity to separate the water molecules into their component elements—oxygen and hydrogen—to isolate hydrogen in a gaseous state. When hydrogen electrolysis is powered by renewable energy, the only byproducts are oxygen, which could potentially be retained for medical use, and water. Onboard the Energy Observer, this water is used to fulfill the crew’s water needs.
The electrolyzer onboard the Energy Observer is relatively small, with the ability to create four to five kilograms (kg) of hydrogen per day. The boat can store 63kg of hydrogen, enough to power the average electricity needs of a four-person household for about forty days.
The Energy Observer is designed to maximize energy production from every accessible source. The top of the smooth white catamaran is blanketed in a quilt of black solar panels. These panels, which can be walked on as one explores the vessel, have the capacity to produce 52 kilowatts of solar power, which is then stored onboard. Propellers below the boat create hydropower from water movement and add to the vessel’s energy creation.
The catamaran also has two wings—futuristic sail replacements that use artificial intelligence to adjust themselves to the wind conditions. By optimizing efficiency, the wings reduce the energy needed to power the craft by 25 percent to 30 percent. These energy savings mean that even while the vessel is moving, it has enough excess energy to be able to electrolyze hydrogen on the go.
The result of these interconnected systems is a fully autonomous floating microgrid. If it were not for the need to restock food for the crew, the vessel would not have to come ashore. Viviès says that the Energy Observer serves as a microcosm for the future energy grid and showcases a system that could be used to power not only maritime fleets, but also towns and cities.
AltaSea CEO Tim McOsker notes that while it is inspiring to watch multiple renewable energy technologies work together onboard the Energy Observer, it is also exciting to know that a maritime vessel could reduce its reliance on fossil fuels by incorporating even one of these innovations.
“All of these technologies are stepping stones to a cleaner, more sustainable future,” McOsker says.
The technology onboard the Energy Observer displays what is possible when renewable energy is harnessed to the fullest extent. Viviès recalls sublime days in the Meditteranean where optimal conditions meant that the boat was able to collect more renewable energy than it had the capacity to store onboard, demonstrating the ability for technology to provide renewable energy in abundance.