Free Solar Energy?


We are finally joining the ranks of many other sailors who spent a lot of money to capture free energy. We have had an Air Breeze wind powered generator aboard Cream Puff since taking ownership. Air Breeze generators are known for being very robust reliable pieces of equipment. Ours broke in the Bahamas earlier this year. We paid to have it rebuilt and will continue to take advantage of wind generated electricity. This summer we decided to invest in solar energy. The upfront investment for “free” electricity is pretty sizable. But over time, it is cheaper than energy produced by our generator which uses diesel. Now that we have our first year of cruising behind us, it looks like we will probably keep going for a while. Hopefully long enough to recoup our investment on the solar set up.

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Cream Puff sports a new arch and solar panels

I started to research solar panels for the marine environment and quickly realized it wasn’t going to be easy. The terminology and electrical jargon quickly became very confusing. After spending countless hours and accomplishing absolutely nothing, I decided to enroll the help of experts. I contacted eMarine in Ft. Lauderdale. The conversation went something like this:

Mark: I need to buy some solar panels

eMarine: We can help with that. What are you looking for?

Mark: I don’t know. I find at all very confusing.

eMarine: No problem. How much electricity do you use in a day?

Mark: A lot

eMarine: I mean in the terms of wattage?

Mark: A lot. It’s still a lot. No matter how we measure it, the answer is always going to be a lot.

eMarine: Usually our customers will calculate out their requirements and add panels to satisfy as much of their requirements that they can. We have several tools to help you do this.

Mark: I think I might be a little different from your regular customers. I have a newly installed arch where I can place solar panels. I would like to get the most energy possible from the space that I have.

eMarine: I see

Mark: I don’t know crap about the technical stuff but with good instructions we can do the installation. I need someone who can put together a kit for me with everything we need from the panels to the battery bank. I need for the kit to have the correct gage wire, breakers, fuses and regulators to make it all work. If I can spend some time at your office going over the installation with a qualified person I feel confident in our ability to install it ourselves. I just really don’t want to take the time to learn and design my own system from scratch. I just want as much power as possible, please.

eMarine: We can do that for you.

And, they did!

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The problem with investing in solar panels is the technology is changing rapidly, very rapidly. We are able to generate from two large panels today what would have required 10 panels a few years ago. No doubt, now that they are installed, someone is going to release a newer better smaller panel for half the price.

Just recently an airplane completed a circumnavigation of our globe and did not use a single drop of fuel. The plane was powered 100% by the sun. The plane was piloted by Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg. Piccard, who comes from a family of explorers, was also the first to fly non-stop, round-the-world in a hot air balloon.

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Solar plane flies around the world without using a single drop of fuel (picture courtesy of solarimpulse)  – click pic for the full story

Piccard was interviewed by the US press during a stopover in the USA. He said something I thought was quite profound. He talked about how flight and solar energy are two areas of science in their infancy. He foresees a future where most planes are powered by alternative fuel sources. He justifies the vision by asking us to take a look at the period of time since man first flew until a man stepped onto the moon. It was only 66 years from the Wright brothers famous Kitty Hawk flight until Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon’s surface. He asks us to imagine what solar power will look like 66 years from now. Wow, right?

Wright Brother's Flight

Wright Brother’s Flight at Kitty Hawk  (picture courtesy of Library of Congress)

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It took only 66 years from the Kitty Hawk first manned flight to get to this day. (picture courtesy of NASA)

And in case you were wondering, there is a connection between Bertrand Piccard, the explorer and Jean-Luc Picard, the star ship captain. From Wikipedia:

Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry named the Star Trek character Jean-Luc Picard after either Jean or his twin Auguste, and it is implied that the character is a descendant of one of the brothers.  Jean Piccard, was a Swiss-born-American chemist, engineer, professor and high-altitude balloonist. He invented clustered high-altitude balloons, and with his wife Jeannette, the plastic balloon. Piccard’s inventions and co-inventions are used in balloon flight, aircraft and spacecraft

Bertrand Piccard is the grandson of Jean Piccard.

Now as I look at our new solar panels and turn them on for the first time, I think of Bertrand Piccard and his solar plane. I think about how amazing it is that I can get energy from the sun to power our freezers, navigation equipment, auto-pilot, iPod and refrigerator. And, I wonder if we will ever ride in a solar powered plane .  While I think of all this stuff, I can’t get that darn voice of Captain Picard out of my head. Star Trek fans already know where I am going here. I am talking about the most quoted and used word from Star Trek that the captain would say before we watched the starship shoot off into deep space. I fire up the new panels and hear Capt Picard’s deep voice saying, “Engage”.




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