Catching the ferry across Sydney Harbour must be one of the best commutes possible. And it led to me spotting one of these solar ferries doing its thing from Circular Quay, with the resulting piece published in Australian Geographic no 96.

Sailing in sunshine

An Australian company leads the shipping revolution

The energy revolution may do for shipping what it has already started for cars, with predictions that we may soon stop saying "give me maximum revs" and say instead "hoist the sails and solar panels". Energy from the wind and sun is increasingly being used to reduce fuel consumption on vessels from ferries to tankers, and Sydney-based company Solar Sailor is leading the fleet.

The MV Solar Sailor is "kind of like the Prius [hybrid car] of the sea" says Anthony Haworth, CEO of Captain Cook Cruises, which has been operating the ferry on Sydney Harbour since 2001. Equipped with adjustable solar-panel-covered rigid sails that catch the wind and generate power to supplement a diesel-fuel engine, the vessel can swap between power sources much like a hybrid car. The technology isn’t just for ferries: applications range from unmanned navy drones to massive cargo ships. Fuel savings range from 20–40 per cent for cargo ships to 50 per cent on harbour-cruise vessels. As battery technology improves, fuel efficiencies are expected to increase.

Solar Sailor CEO Robert Dane first became interested in the concept while watching Canberra’s annual solar boat race in 1996. A keen sailor, he thought he could improve on what he saw. Interest in his technology has now spread around the world. The first of four 24 m, 100-passenger is due to be delivered to the Hong Kong Jockey Club in November this year.

Development models of crewless drones for the US navy are already out on the water, with designs due for completion by March 2010. "It’s a paradigm shift for them [the US military] because for the cost of one destroyer they can have 5000 drones and no running costs", Robert says.

In October 2008, Solar Sailor signed an agreement with China’s biggest shipping line, Cosco, to retrofit two tankers with solar-powered aluminium sails the size of jumbo-jet wings. The trial will determine the technology's viability for the rest of Cosco’s 117-strong fleet, as well as its place in the development of new vessels. 

Megan Holbeck