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Couple makes 6,500-mile, largely solar-powered trip to the heart of a clean-energy America

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Bill Carlsen and his wife Cynthia Berger had a few simple goals in mind when they began their year-long odyssey aboard a partially solar-powered boat.
Couple makes 6,500-mile, largely solar-powered trip to the heart of a clean-energy America

To begin with, they simply wanted to complete the “Great Loop” within the time allowed by their respective sabbaticals: His from his day job as professor of environmental education at Penn State University; hers from her career as a reporter and news director at WPSU-FM, the local public radio station in State College, Pennsylvania.

The Loop is an all-water, 6,500-mile circumnavigation of Eastern North America that encompasses the Mississippi River, the Gulf and East Coasts of the United States, rivers and tributaries that link the waters of the northern East Coast to the Great Lakes separating the Us and Canada, and then back to the Mississippi again.

The trip itself is so popular that there’s even an organization dedicated to it; the America’s Great Loop Cruisers’ Association. About 250 couples a year venture forth on the Loop; many, charmed by the sites and activities along the way, take more than a year to complete it.

Another thing Carlsen wanted to do was document the performance of solar as a propulsion system during the journey – the reason why solar wasn’t used to power other parts of the boat, like the appliances in its living quarters.

And together the couple wanted to learn first-hand how a random sampling of their fellow Americans felt about renewable energy and issues such as environmental protection, waterway protection and climate change.

Nine months into their journey Carlsen and Berger arrived in Charleston, S.C. for a week-long visit and to perform needed maintenance on their vessel called the Dragonfly.

“We’re both biologists – I study marine biology while Cynthia studied limnology (freshwater systems), so I guess you can say all things aquatic have always been in our heads and that it’s kind of in our genetics,” Carlsen told Renewable Energy Magazine on a recent morning.

“Can I say something?” Berger asked, joining the conversation. “One of the things Bill wanted to do was to learn more about alternative energy technologies by messing around with them,” she said. “So in a real sense this trip that we’ve been on has been an adventure in experiential, hands on, learning.”

Going solar came naturally for the pair; as Berger explained. “We have this boat. It has a big flat roof, and Bill got the idea that the flat roof suggested the application of solar technology, which he installed himself.”

Old and New All at Once

The boat in question was built in 1990, but looks like an old-fashioned, 19th century canal boat like those used on the Erie Canal in the US state of New York to link trade from early America’s hinterlands to the growing markets on the coast.

The one major difference between the Dragonfly and the original canal boats is that the modern models are made of steel, while the originals were all wood.

In deciding to bring back the “Erie Canal boat” design, engineers from the Mid Lakes Navigation Co. looked to Europe and the materials currently used to ply its many canals.

“In terms of boat-building technologies, it is a funny mix of the 19th, 20th, and 21st Century,” Carlsen said. “It has a single engine, a single prop, and the boat is steered with a tiller – so in all practical respects, there are really no mechanical systems on board for steering.”

To incorporate solar power n the mix, Carlsen, a total clean-energy novice, searched online for practical tips and bought several books from online booksellers.

“The challenge was that adding solar panels to your boat the way we intended fell somewhat into a grey area,” he said. “There are all kinds of books about wiring your home for solar, books that include all of the tables and calculations for figuring out how large an array you need to get a desired level of power.

“Then, there’s another class of books and resources for people that want to build electric cars,” Carlsen continued. “So basically what the boat is, is the intersection of two existing, kind of, amateur communities -- the do-it-yourself-get-off-the-grid-with-a-solar-power-system-for-your-house community and a take- a-car-and-convert-it-to-run-on-solar community.”

With those resources, Carlsen said he felt like he garnered about 95 percent of the knowledge he needed to outfit his boat.

“The last 5% is kind of a question of, ‘are you willing to take a chance?’ and ‘Do you know some expert?’” he said.

Through his college contact, Carlsen was able to bounce his ideas on torque and horsepower and amps off people that had experience in doing hybrid conversions of road vehicles.

But there was still a last smidgen for which the couple had to get by on faith and nerve.

“Basically, you get to the point where you’ve read everything about this particular thing, and nothing exactly fits, and you kind of have to say, ‘Well, how is it similar and how is it different?’ And hope you figure it out,” Carlsen said.

Given that background, one would think the husband and wife would have done extensive on-the-water tests of the system. In reality, the couple spent only about three hours in the craft before setting out on the Loop.

“Here’s the chronology,’ Carlsen said. “We bought the boat in November 2009, and by that time it was actually out of the water and on dry land because the Erie Canal is now drained in the beginning of November.

“Over the course of the winter, I made some weekend trips up to the Erie Canal, where the boat was, and I would climb up a ladder, crawl under the plastic and work on the inside.”

“In the freezing cold,” Berger added.

On 1 May 2010, water flowed back into the canal and the boat was placed back into the water. Carlsen then spent a few days installing the solar panels that cover the vessel’s steel roof, and then there was time for but one shakedown cruise before they formally got underway.

Practical magic

The Dragonfly (shown above in a photograph taken by the couple) is outfitted with its original, 60 horsepower, Yanmar diesel engine.

“A great engine,” Carlsen said.

But it’s also one with more than 13,000 hours on it.

“So we just left the engine in place and mounted the electric motor over the prop shaft, and we connect the existing prop shaft to this little high tech motor with a timing belt,” he said. “That allows us to put the diesel engine in neutral and drive it with electric, or we can slip the timing belt off and drive it with diesel.”

It’s the only practical way to do the loop, given the relatively slow speed they can achieve under solar power and the distance between safe harbours on some stretches of the journey.

But that hasn’t stopped many of those they’ve encountered along the way from assuming they’re making the trip exclusively on solar power, equating their effort with that of the MV Turanor [built by the Knierim Yacht Club in Kiel, Germany, and covered with 5,780 square feet of solar photovoltaic cells capable of providing 93.5 HW of power] which is currently circling the globe.

“That’s a $17 million project,” Berger said. “It is 101-foot long, very futuristic – it looks like the starship Enterprise – and it’s is around the world, 34,000 miles, completely under solar power.”

“By contrast, we’re funding this ourselves and on a sabbatical, professors are on a partial salary, while I’ve taken a year’s leave of absence from my job,” she continued. So let’s just say we’re doing this for considerably less that $17 million.

“We chose the loop because it’s a challenge that appeals to the imagination and because it was a route that a boat like ours, which is not made for the open water, could handle,” Berger added.

“The diesel gives us the flexibility to go a little farther on days that we need to, when there’s nowhere to stop, like on the Mississippi River, where you can travel 100 miles between marinas,” Carlsen said.

Perspectives on renewables change

So what has Carlsen learned about using solar power as a propulsion system?

“The first thing is that solar-powered engines are a heck of a lot simpler and easier to deal with than diesel engines,” he said. “Now, that’s not to say I’ve had any particular problems with out diesel – it was very well-maintained – but in any marine diesel engine you’ve got hundreds of moving parts.

“It’s a complicated system, and consequently, it requires a lot of maintenance and a lot of attention,” Carlsen continued. “The electric system, by comparison, requires virtually no maintenance. We have flooded lead acid batteries on board that do require you keep an eye on the water level, but they sip water … I think I’ve added water twice this whole trip.

“And then there’s the motor itself, which has only one moving part, so there’s really nothing to break,” he said. “So lesson number one would be that a solar electric boat is a lot simpler to operate and maintain that a conventional fossil fuel boat.”

However, having said that, Carlsen has also come to believe that a solar-powered boat requires more thinking than one running on fossil fuel.

“With a gas or diesel boat, as long as you have enough fuel to go from point A to point B, chances are you can do it. And you can drive it fast,” he said. “Gasoline and diesel fuel is very energy dense, so in a pound of diesel fuel you can go a long way. With an electric boat, or if we have a fuel cell or hydrogen, a non-fossil fuel boat, the fuel is going to be a lot less energy dense so your range is going to be more limited.

“So we spend a lot of time looking and charts and saying, ‘Can we get from where we are today to some safe place to anchor or tie up 20 miles from here, because on a typical, partly cloudy day, 20 miles is about our range,” Carlsen said.

“Which is not what many people want to do with their boating experience, right?” Berger said.

“So another of the things I’ve learned about solar electric for boats is you do have to plan very carefully and you do have to think about your limited range, and you also have to be prepared to go slowly,” Carlsen said.

“So, what have we learned?” he continued. “We’ve learned that people are really interested in this sort of thing. Every boater has had to deal with issues related to the cost of fuel, and I think people are attracted to the notion that you can do this without spending a lot of money on diesel or gasoline. We’ve met very few people other than sail boaters, however, who I think would be willing to make the trade off with respect to range or speed.

But both agree the thing that’s been most remarkable about the trip is finding out what others along their route are doing with renewable energy.

“I think we tend to assume that when big innovations in alternative energy technology come, they’ll come because big research institutions or corporations have invested a lot of money in figuring things out,” Berger said.

“We’ve really been struck on this trip by how many average Joes are tinkering with this stuff,” she said. “For instance, we are going through a lock on the Ohio river and the lock tender comes out -- and he certainly looks like an average Joe -- and he comes on up to the boat and starts asking all these questions; it turns out that he’s building himself an electric car.

“Another time, while we were in Tarpon Springs, Florida, a guy came by to see the boat, and he was a guy who had sort of dropped out of society and developed this pirate persona for himself, but he’s building himself a sailboat that he also wanted to power with a solar electric system,” Berger continued.

“And then we heard from a guy who makes some of his living by going around to fairs with a solar-powered ice cream cart. He said, ‘I couldn’t believe it when I found out about your trip because I want to do the same thing; in fact, I’m building a solar electric boat right now in order to do the Great Loop.’”

“So now he’s kind of a regular email correspondent,” Berger said. “He has questions about what works and what doesn’t; so our impression is there are just a lot of ordinary folks who are interested in this stuff and are trying to do interesting things with it.”

“You know, it’s really interesting,” Carlsen said. “About 10 years ago I had the opportunity to travel to Pakistan and visit the universities and one of the things I was really interested in was issues related to environmental education.

“The message I got while there was that environmental concern and environmental activism is a luxury for rich countries; that Pakistan is so poor, and that all it has the luxury of focusing on right now is economic development. And I remember thinking, how sad that is,” he said.

“One of the things that has come home to me on this trip is how intricately tied questions related to the environment and improving the environment are to issues like the economy and economic development,” Carlsen continued. “I mean, we’ve been through so many towns that have been clobbered by the economic downturn -- and the whole marine industry has been clobbered by the economic downturn -- but at the same time, so many communities have made poor decisions about how they develop themselves.

“Prior to this trip I never had the slightest bit of interest in the business or economic side of this issue; now I’m recognizing that it’s right up at the top of the list in terms of what is the balance from people taking action versus not taking action,” he said.

After pausing to collect his thoughts, Carlsen said one of the themes that’s he’s grown increasingly interested in exploring as the trip has progressed goes back to what his wife observed about the activities and influence of average people.

“As I said earlier, when it comes to the field of environmental education, I’ve always thought of it in terms of science and engineering,” he said. “What’s been humbling for me as we’ve travelled and spoken to people about their attitude about the environment and renewable energy is that many of things that are being done in these areas isn’t being done out of a love or interest in science.”

“It’s about community planning or economic development or aesthetics, and really what drives a lot of people to be concerned about the environment or to get involved in recycling or river keeping is the simple fact that they care about some natural resource that’s in their lives,” Carlsen said.

“You know, science is important, but it’s not the only thing,” he added. “If we really want to engage people in taking positive steps that make a difference, we have to be willing to start with what their interests are and what consumes and drives them.”

Day-to-day reality likely transformed

Once the couple returns home, Carlsen intends to incorporate his first-hand experience with solar power into a new course on renewable energy.

“For example, we have a group home for boys near campus that’s very interested in doing some sort of small solar installation as a project for the boys, so I think my class and I will get involved in that.”

Berger, meanwhile, said she intends to write a book about their experience.

When it comes to lifestyle, Berger said given their educational backgrounds they’ve long made decisions that reflect their background as ecologists. Now they wonder whether the time has finally come to downsize to a smaller house – a long-standing, ongoing discussion – and how they’ll incorporate their solar panels into their lives when they get home.

“When we first got the solar panels, we thought about whether we could install them on the boat in such a way that we could take them off at the end of the trip and install them on the house,” Berger said. “But the various tax incentives for solar installations on your home don’t apply if you’ve previously purchased your solar panels and installed them on your boat; It’s basically, ‘You have to install them on your house or nothing, sorry.’

“So we are talking about whether there is something we can do with them once the boat is docked on the Erie Canal all summer: is there some way we can partner with the marina where it is docked and feed the grid or something like that,” she said.

“The other thing is, once this trip is over and we’re basically just using the Dragonfly for weekend trips and week-long vacations with friends, we don’t expect we’ll need the diesel engine anymore,” Berger continued. “Furthermore, a lot of sail boaters use solar panels to run their house systems, the refrigerator and the lights and the interior things that you use to be comfortable.

“Now, we chose not to do that on this trip, but it’s not going to be a really big job to change the wiring and go completely solar once we’re back in our home port,” she added.

For additional information:

The Slow Boat Web site

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