Kerala startup pioneers solar-powered mobility with ferries & boats

Transportation system which doesn’t use fossil fuels has been almost every futurist’s dream. A few commercial success stories of the latest technological advancements, such as Tesla Motors’ electric cars, have given us hope. Moreover, unique projects such as NASA’s Mars Rover have gone a step further, being powered by solar energy. Now, a Kerala-based startup is gearing up to make solar-powered mobility a commercially-viable reality. NavAlt, is planning to deliver India’s largest solar-powered ferry to the Kerala State Water Transport Department within a few weeks.

The ferry will be 20m long, and will be able to ply 75 passengers in the backwaters near Kochi, Kerala. According to Sandith Thandasherry, CEO, NavAlt Solar and Electric Boats, this solar-powered ferry will not pollute water and air, will be silent for the passengers and the environment, and have negligible operational expenditure as it will not require any fuel.

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Sandith saw the technological advancements in energy storage and photovoltaics as an opportunity to create a cleaner water transport system. “A solar-powered car is still far from commercial reality, but a large boat with huge surface area to install solar panels and lower power requirement seemed to be more realistic. We joined hands with other global organisations to make this shared vision a reality”, says the IIT Chennai-INSEAD alumnus.   NavAlt is a joint venture between Navgathi, an Indian marine engineering firm, and AltEn and EVE systems, French companies with the technical expertise.

Implementation of an innovative idea, Sandith adds, is always a challenge. His team was tasked with building this 75-passenger ferry from scratch, while tackling two challenges – optimized energy management and reduction in propulsion power. The ferry will utilize a 20kW solar photovoltaic array to power two electric motors via 50kWh Lithium batteries, and it will not require any diesel at all. On rainy days, the solar ferry has the option of getting charged by the grid-supplied power.

Even though building a solar ferry would initially cost considerably more than building a single-hull steel ferry of the same capacity, it is commercially viable in the longer run. While the diesel-powered fuel may consume fuel costing more than INR 25 lakhs a year, the solar ferry will have negligible operational expenditure. At the same time, staying true to India’s frugal innovation reputation, this ferry will cost about one-third of building a similar one in Europe. Compared to a conventional diesel-powered ferry, a solar-ferry will break-even in 4-6 years, making it a profitable venture. According to Sandith, many other government bodies in India as well as abroad have shown interest in NavAlt’s solar ferries, and he is hopeful of 20 orders within the next year or so.

So next time you’re planning a trip to Kerala in 2016, do make sure you stop by and enjoy the beautiful backwaters on this unique ferry and experience the future of water transport.

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