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“How fast can this thing go?” I ask Jackson Vilema, the guy driving Solaris, a new, solar-powered boat that's designed to putz around the bay surrounding the Galapagos Islands’ Puerto Ayora.
As soon as the words have left my lips, it occurs to me: I didn’t have to lean closer to Vilema, I didn’t have to yell, I didn’t have to repeat myself. This is unlike any motorboat I’ve ever been on.
Like electric cars, Solaris is unbelievably quiet. Its motor is less than half the size of traditional gasoline-powered outboard motors, and its plastic propeller makes little more than a whistling noise as it cuts through the bay. It’s not silent by any means, but you can hold a conversation onboard with no problem.
Vilema tells me the boat can go seven knots an hour, so it’s not going to be winning races anytime soon. But that’s not the point, at least not for now.
Until recently solar boats have been huge or expensive, or both. In September, the 102-foot-long PlanetSolar catamaran successfully complete a 3-month voyage from Miami to Paris. The price tag? $102 million—a tidy million-per-foot.
The 24-foot Solaris, on the other hand, cost just $60,000.
And the Galapagos Islands might be the perfect place to try out a boat like this. Though both tourism and the four populated islands’ populations are growing at a shocking pace, the Galapagos National Park (a branch of the Ecuadorian government) is trying its best to keep humanity’s environmental footprint here to a minimum. That’s one of the reasons why Puerto Ayora’s tourist harbor hasn’t been renovated to allow larger boats to dock. Instead, they set anchor a couple hundred feet away. From there, dozens of water taxis make dozens of trips each day, ferrying passengers and their luggage from inter-island ferries and larger cruise ships to shore. For that trip, which takes all of three minutes and costs $1 a head, a solar powered boat could be perfect.
A series of computers and sensors onboard the Solaris measure energy intake and usage, which can then be downloaded to make estimates about how much gasoline would be saved.
“We want to take that information and give it to the water taxi drivers,” Juan Carlos Garcia, the WWF’s point man on the project, said. “We want to say, every day you can save three gallons of fuel, so every year that’s this much. Do a financial analysis for them.”
Right now, the financial side of things might not make sense, but feasibly is closer than you might think. The German-made Torqueedo electric engine—rigged to be charged by the solar panels on the boat’s canopy—is rapidly coming down in price and has a 10-year warranty. Garcia estimates that, without the solar panels, a boat could be outfitted to run on a Torqueedo engine for about $30,000. WWF and the park are looking into setting up several solar charging stations that would make it so each boat didn’t need solar panels.
Compare that to outboard motors that have to be frequently serviced and—even in best-case scenarios—last just four years in the bay’s cold, salty water, and things start to look more interesting.
“We want to use this to educate people,” Garcia said. “It’s a big upfront investment, but it might save them money over the next 10 years.”
It’s also a conversation starter on the conservation-minded islands. I arranged to ride on the boat in August, when a just a few hours of intense sunlight burst through the garua—or persisting dense fog and mist that lasts from June through October—to charge the panels. Even with the garua, Garcia says that the islands get enough sun to charge the boat without problems.
“We can take the boat out without the [solar panels] on, and we can charge the boat with charging stations if we want,” he said. “But that kind of defeats the purpose.”
Generally neither natives on the island nor tourists are aware that solar powered boats are feasible. Most of the people onboard the Solaris worked for the National Park and were surprised at how fast it was able to move.
“When the motor arrived here, everyone said, ‘There’s no way that motor can even push the boat out of the dock,” Garcia said.
It did push the boat out of the dock, and it pushed us over some choppy waves about as smoothly as a gas-powered boat would have. It took us from the National Park’s private dock, past National Geographic cruise ships, past anchored yachts, and over to the tourist dock, where people pointed and stared at it. It pushed us around the other water taxis and past similarly-sized boats carrying tourists on bay tours. After a while, once you get past the quiet sound and the myriad meters constantly measuring sunlight and battery drainage, the solar boat stopped feeling like a solar boat and felt like, well, a boat.
“It goes the same speed used by the bay tours here, the same speed that the water taxis use,” Garcia said. “You don’t need to go any faster.”
And that’s exactly what they’ll do. Starting this month, Solaris will begin ferrying scientists, environmentally-minded tourists, and student groups on tours of Academy Bay. Eddie Araujo, who works for the Galapagos National Park and rode on the boat with me, said that the whole idea was hatched to get people on the island thinking about sustainability. Even the boat’s backstory—it is a repossessed boat once belonging to illegal fisherman who were catching and selling endangered species—is one of environmental protection rather than destruction.
“The idea is to do tours around the bay to show interested people the power of this technology. We’re not going to do tours for everyone, just for people who are interested and might be able to help expand it,” Araujo said. “We don’t want to compete with tour operators, but we want to show them, too, what’s possible.”
Gasoline-powered boats aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, and it’d be naïve to think that replacing a few water taxis with solar boats is going to make any meaningful dent in water pollution rates or carbon emissions on the islands. Boats are an everyday part of life on the islands. Giant tankers are used to ship cargo in from the mainland, large catamarans are used to ferry people for the three-hour trip between Santa Cruz and the other populated islands, and giant cruise ships are still the most popular way to tour the archipelago.
But, if this pilot program goes well, there could be a future for solar to fulfill at least some of those tasks. Torqueedo makes larger motors that could be used for inter-island ferries, Garcia says, and the giant barges that cover the couple hundred feet between the island of Baltra, where the most popular airport is, and Santa Cruz, where the most people live, could one day be run by solar boats.
“When we started this project, there was no distributor [of solar boat motors] in Ecuador. Now there is,” Garcia says. “There’s people here already looking for commercial applications. There are engines that could make the inter-island trips, there might be engines that can push the barges across the channel. For now, we just want to use it to educate people.”