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I got quite a bit of mail about my article on going "green" on cruising cats. A lot of the mail was from fans of hybrid propulsion systems who felt that I painted an unfavorable picture of those systems. So, to keep the debate going here let me share with you some of the discussions I have had since then with David Tether, who is an old friend and a guy who has dedicated a lot of time and energy to the development of hybrid systems.
First, fuel is expensive and wind is free. Generators are loud and solar panels are quiet and require no fuel. I argued in the last newsletter that when talking about "green" sailboats the most important factor is how power is generated clearly with wind and solar being the optimal. Weight is a factor in both of these power-generating systems and that has an impact on sailing performance. Witness the fact that racing cats sail absolutely phenomenally and overloaded, heavy cruising cats do not sail as well. I am not in any way disparaging luxury, comfort, parties, marinas, air conditioning, TV or loud music. I love all of those things more than I care to admit. My point is a simple one in that if you want to be completely green sailing high-energy consumption yachts is a tough place to start!
Let's move on to debate about hybrid propulsion. Back in the '90s a very bright engineer named David Tether founded a company called Soloman Systems, which was dedicated to creating electric propulsion systems for sailboats. Tether watched as the US government developed a technology called fuel cells, which are essentially super high capacity, self-generating electric supply cells that had/have the potential to revolutionize the automotive industry, as well as energy in general. These fuel cells were designed to use water and hydrogen at the core.
When fuel cell innovation slowed down (and you can read into its decline whatever you like from it's impossible to the technology being squelched by Big Oil.) Around this time, Tether started making "hybrid" systems along the lines of a Toyota Prius and other hybrid cars. At the core of all these systems were diesel generators. So in deference to keeping this article short, let's fast forward through the fact that there are now about 50 boats out there with these systems, and depending on who you ask, they are either the greatest thing ever or they are heavy, unreliable, and very expensive. But Tether is still working hard on this problem and I am still a fan of the idea and sincerely hope it works. It is also my hope that by writing articles like this - discussing the good and the bad of the systems - it will push this technology to innovate even faster. And now Tether has a rock star developer named Nigel Calder working with him, which as I told him, is like having Eric Clapton giving me guitar lessons. So, I am hopeful for the future of these systems.
But, back to the core debate. A yacht owner named Joe Huberman wrote me and told me has a very high performance monohull and uses a hybrid system on it. He argues that the two best advantages of hybrid systems are: "First, you always have electric power ready to go in an instant without having to start and warm up an engine. Second, when you are sailing you can generate all the power you need to run your boat systems."
While I am sure that is true, generating electricity through solar and wind would always be preferable to running a generator to my way of thinking. If your electricity requirements are higher than that, so be it, but then the whole "green" argument just seems beside the point. Sailboats, particularly cruising cats, are so fast, powerful and efficient that dragging a fixed prop around - or running an engine to avoid that drag - seems contrary to the goal of creating efficient, high-performance sailboats. To be fair, I start every debate with the premise that we need to make sailboats sail as well as we can. So, dragging fixed props through the water to generate electricity is not optimal given that starting premise under any circumstances.
David Tether reminds me that the argument about engines was resolved long ago. "It was le Grand Monsieur Beneteau that said no one belonged on the water without an engine to take control when necessary. Beneteau was the first company in the world to put an engine in every single boat they built. If we then accept that, for the bulk of the industry, engines are necessary then serial hybrids are the simplest form of engine system that is within the confines of the electro mechanical technology that must exist on a vessel."
Tether boasts that he has "boats cross the Atlantic and never burn a drop of fossil fuel. Not one drop. They ranged from 12v sailors that are used to not using much energy, to others using regeneration for power water heaters, flat screen TVs and multiple refrigerators."
That's pretty impressive. Tether says today there are 50 boats on the water with his systems in them and 8 of those have never had a single drop of fossil fuel on them since the day the engines were installed.
"Four of those boats were Cruisers that have just solar and regeneration systems. One was a CAL 36 that was converted in Santa Monica then sailed to Italy via the South Pacific without a drop of fossil fuel on the vessel. If that is your fancy, it can be done."
Tether is clear that the technology is flexible and can be used in a multiple of ways.
"Since the very beginning of taking this walk, I have told people over and over again that it can be all things to all people. These systems can be designed for your exact needs, whatever they are. It doesn't have to have 8D batteries. It can use wheel chair batteries; it doesn't have to have a diesel because it uses renewables and can regenerate; it can have a big generator and little batteries, a little gen and big batteries, or medium sized both, or grand-sized both; it can just convert for 12v amenities or it can convert and invert to 12vdc systems, 24vdc systems and 120/60 vac as well as 220vdc. In fact, the TAG Yacht (60' Greg Young Design like Earthling) we are doing right now has 12cdc systems, 24vdc systems, 120/60 vac inverters for US appliances and 220/50 vac inverters for EU appliances. It can plug into shore power anywhere in the world and charge, or charge it self from solar, fossil fuel or regeneration. It's getting a 230amp hour LI battery pack that allows its recharge to be done with Charge Acceptance Rates in the 90 percentile from any electric source. Its battery pack weighs 700 lbs with wire, boxes and bracing and can motor the boat at 6kts for 3 hours on batteries alone."
Again, pretty impressive. Now, to the point about energy efficiency. Tether notes that "the efficiency is there and so is the robustness. I can now prove that there is a 10 percent increase in overall energy efficiency on flat water, the energy efficiency then Goes us as the sea conditions worsen because the efficiency of the system is flat lined at all speeds and sea conditions."
Tether contends that the hotel load efficiency is 200 percent to 300 percent higher than the conventional boat. And it's all renewable and will evolve with the technologies that it is comprised of.
So, there you go. I hope that this all helps. I do continue to have some doubts about the technology and the wisdom of the hybrid vs. solar and wind. I am not crazy about regeneration, not crazy about the weight, dependability and cost uncertainties. To my mind, when and if hybrids become the best systems I am all for using them!
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