Navigating, navigating and spending nothing, wasting nothing, saving everything: fuel, environment, natural resources, communities. This is how the Sun Concept project, that develops solar boats for recreation, maritime-tourism activities and fishing, launched into the murky waters of the national market, aligning technological innovation, industrial design and sustainability. VER embarked on a voyage to present the SunSailer, at Óbidos Lagoon. Welcome aboard a reporting that revels the light of the simplest ideas, those that shine on people and on the planet. Because when the sun rises, it is for everyone, and we can all enjoy it.
With regard to the cliché that a boat owner has two joys in life – when he buys the boat and when he sells it – the tradition is not what it once was. If the acquisition, whether for professional purposes or for recreation, involved up to now a financial and logistical effort so great that it implied, in itself, a heavy burden, today there is an alternative to conventional vessels which, at least with regard to consumption and maintenance, shows itself to be very light.
Since March 2016, there has been a national project that materialised on boats moved by solar energy, planned from the ground up to be cost-effective, silent and ecological, and that are the result of the synergy between technological innovation, industrial design and sustainability.
The idea was born of a “bar conversation that became a boat conversation”, between a biologist, an accountant and a ship builder, and quickly the intention to commit to serial production of a boat that would not fill Ria Formosa with noise and pollution gained scale at the planning level, and wit recourse the shared capita l of the nuclear founder, resulted in the constitution (in May) and development of the Sun Concept company, that invested, “to date, close to half a million euros”, as stated to VER by its Director of Strategy and Sustainability, Nuno Gaspar de Oliveira.
Today the first electro-solar vessel company in Portugal and one of the first in the world, to exchange the prototype for the sales phase, has on the market three models of the SunSailer 7.0 line – for recreation (S), maritime.tourism activities (MT) and fishing (PRO) – which, with seven metres of length, two 6 horsepower electrical engines supplied by a bank of four batteries that are charged with six photo-voltaic panels (or five in the case of the PRO version) installed on the vessel itself, and a patented hull with 40cm draught designed to not leave a backwash (and thus, not agitate the waters, respecting the ecosystems), are designed for use in protected coastal areas and lagoon and riverside areas, such as inlets, estuaries, rivers and lagoons.
By 2018 the minimum objective is to have at least twenty SunSailers on the market.
Achieving a cruising speed of five knots and a maximum of 7 knots (approximately from 10 to 13 km/hr.), these boats have an autonomy without sun of six to eight hours, and infinite in the presence of the sun’s rays, even in fog, since “that more they go the less they spend” affirms Manuel Brito, CEO and main investor.
And this is the great asset of SunSailer: it does not need fuel. With a zero consumption level, that translates into zero emissions of greenhouse gases, a 95% reduction in noise levels and 80% less expensive maintenance than a conventional boat (since it also does not need oil, filters or spark plugs), the solar boat designed by the Olhão company saves 15 to 20 thousand euros per year, compared with a maritime tourist activity that navigates 500 to 600 hours per year, with a traditional 50 horsepower engine.
The prices for identical vessels with internal combustion engines vary between 24,600 euros (plus VAT), for the version designed for fishermen, shellfish gatherers and nurserymen, with space for six passengers, those for 32,400 euros (plus VAT) for the recreational version, for 8 passengers, and those for 37,700 euros (plus VAT) for the boat with the largest capacity (12 passengers), directed at tourism operators that work in calm or protected waters, the most promising target of the visionary project.
It’s a boat that builds bridges
The small town of Foz do Arelho, in the municipality of Oeste das Caldas da Rainha, awoke to bright sunshine, surprising those used to its unstable micro-climate, on the morning of 08 October, the day of presentation of the Sun Concept project. Since the day before, the SunSailer MT waited, at the entrance to the Inatel Foundation Hotel, for the sun’s rays to shine on the beautiful Óbidos Lagoon, where it provided various trips throughout the afternoon.
Before an audience of many dozens of participants, among local government, representatives of environmental association and the energy sector, potential tourism investors and users of the services of these boats as well as come curious onlookers, Nuno Gaspar de Oliveira, Manuel Costa Braz, Director and João Bastos, Sales Director of Sun Concept, inspire those present with the dynamism and cohesion of the team that set out on this voyage “out of devotion” that want to navigate very far, beyond the Portuguese coast, already counting for this purpose with ten workers dedicated to the development and production of the vessels from the Olhão shipyard.
Proud of the national seal of approval of the most sustainable boat in Portugal, Manuel Costa told the audience that Sun Concept has in the pipeline the construction of “a shipyard next to Ria Formosa that is totally self-sustainable”, that uses “ecological energy” (wind or solar) exclusively, and that allows making the parking of boats acquired from the company profitable, whenever they are connected to the current, making use of the electrical energy generated for the consumption of the shipyard and thus reducing the logistical costs of the owners.
The construction of an ecological shipyard at Ria Formosa could be the epicentre of a new sustainable hub for sustainable regional development
Emphasising as well the sustainability of the project, João Bastos explained how the SunSailer “is able to navigate with a minimal water line” (the references 40 cm), that allows “the hull to move without leaving a wake” (backwash), thus protecting the vulnerable ecosystems of the lagoon and riverside areas and radically diminishing disturbance to other vessels, as well as swimmers. And he depicted how this solar boat is so silent that everyone who embarked on it (including the company’s team itself, in the test phase, asked is the boat was already operating.
Counting on the Siroco Group as a business partner, the project of the Algarve company has at this time boats “ideal for tourism, in a more entrepreneurial perspective, or for leisure, if we are also thinking about personal use”. However, these same boats, especially the SunSailer MT, with its room for 12 passengers, are also ideal for taxi-type transport services, to make the connection between coastal communities or provide social services, for instance, supporting children, young people and the elderly, either as a means of transport or for educational, environmental or cultural animation activities.
As explained to VER by the Director of Strategy and Sustainability of Sun Concept, “this is a boat that builds bridges, takes people cruising along the banks at zero cost”. Both in other parts of the city, like Vila do Conde or Aveiro, and in the regions of neighbouring countries such as Alto Minho and Galicia, or along the banks of the international Guadiana river, “among many other opportunities to establish solar bridges between sites and people”.
But even at the tourism level, “something we have noticed is that many hotel units or small rural tourism clusters have little to offer in terms of their own activities and, either in direct use (purchasing the boat) or in indirect use (purchasing the services of the boat owner) they can benefit greatly from having a complementary leisure activity, recreation, or observation of wildlife”, concluded Nuno Oliveira.
Also, in terms of activities connected to fishing and natural resources, the mentors of SunSailer hope that these boats, “in a more simplified and better adapted form”, can serve for fishermen from sheltered waters, shellfish gatherers, algae pickers, fish farmers and for activities linked to protecting nature, such as vigilance of natural areas, monitoring biodiversity, animal rescues, control of exotic plants and research, “among so many other purposes such as those you can imagine”. Indeed, here as well, when the sun rises it is for everyone.
WAIT AND SEA
But how could the maritime-tourism companies of the communities located in areas of calm or protected waters be made aware of the sustainability of this project, and from what incentives could these small local businesses benefit in the context of this investment?
The acquisition of a SunSailer “is not so different” for the acquisition of another vessel for the same purposes, in terms of socio-economic activity, explains Nuno Oliveira. After all, “all boats cost money, but while some cost even more money when they are moving, ours saves in an unbelievable manner, allowing large sums corresponding to the costs avoided with fuel and taxes to be set aside for the well-being of the persons and families” that invested in the project And we have not even spoken of “the amount of additional work days you can have in the field of tourism and leisure”. For instance, a couple that want to go on a maritime-tourist trip in the low season often see their right denied for a simple reason: they “don’t pay” the fuel. the service doesn’t “pay” the fuel. With no fuel to pay, the operator can go out as often as he wants or needs to, even if he is the only passenger, he clarifies.
Sun Concept supports the Técnico Solar Boat students, who are building a solar racing boat.
For the Sustainability specialist, the growth of support for regional development, an economy with low carbon and smooth/electrical mobility “will be very beneficial”, by allowing interested parties to submit financial support projects, “with even more ambitious objectives than if they had purchased boats with their own funds, thus benefiting from the stimuli of a greener economy”.
Even without these incentives (yet), Sun Concept has already sold three vessels – tow for Ria Formosa and two for the Douro – and is expected to sign two new contracts, in the Algarve and in the Middle Tagus region, and is studying “over a dozen requests for information”.
By the end of the year it is expected that at least another five vessels will be on order to begin delivery starting in March and April, “the time of year when boats start selling”, adds Nuno Oliveira. This is “a very seasonal product, it can be negotiated at any time of the year” and, naturally, most sales are in the Spring, in anticipation of the main use, during the Summer. In any event, and until 2018, “our minimal objective is to have twenty SunSailers on the market… and then some”, he predicts.
Moreover, the company has had, since its start-up, plans to develop another type of solar vessels such as 12 or 18 metre catamarans, able to leave for the open sea and carry 30 or 40 persons, either to watch dolphins and whales or to reach other destination. And, as the year went on, it developed “a very close relationship” with the team from the Técnico Solar Boat, a group of students who are building a solar racing boat for the Monaco Solar1 Race, among other competitions: “we are sponsors of this multi-disciplinary team and, in exchange, we have obtained great support in terms of notes and ideas for developing new vessels. This is a growing partnership and people will be talking about it”.
In this nautical sector that are often requests for special projects, such one customer “who wanted a river boat to take 60 people throughout Europe… or outside of Europe. Anything can happen”, says, enthusiastically, the person responsible for the strategy of the company for building electro-solar vessels.
As for the perspectives of internationalising the project, in a first phase (two years) Sun Concept wants to explore to the maximum the national market and begin expansion into Spain, “since it is right next door and since it has a territory with very similar valences”. At the same time, the area of the European Union, including countries to the North and expansion to the East, “seems like an immense market that will require us to fine tune models and strategies but that, in the medium and long term, will prove to be fundamental for our sustainable growth”.
What he does not rule out is that it is “we could eagerly imagine our boats in Guanabara bay, in lake Titicaca, coming down the Nile, linking the Thai islands in the thousand Finish lakes, in the Danube delta, in the Mekong estuary… the world is a big place and the sun is the greatest common denominator of all”, concludes Nuno Oliveira.
Over here, the medium-term dream is the launching of the Ria Formosa shipyard, “since only with a suitable shipyard can we create new models and the capacity of response to growth and diversification”. This is “an ambitious project” that rests on three premises: the restoration of urbanised and degraded areas; construction with sustainable materials and construction and, “of course”, energy independence. “We still don’t have a lot to show, but we can add that it will be a small revolution in terms of marine logistics, and could be the epicentre of a new hub for sustainable regional development”.
In light of so many and such good expectations, the best is to wait and ‘sea’, the person responsible jokes. Until then, there will be many trips to show off this solar boat, under the motto “Can a solar boat change the concept of tourism?“. The next one will take place on 15 October, in Vila Nova de Cerveira.
We are the last ones to say good-bye to the sun
Nuno Gaspar Oliveira is not only the Director of Strategy and Sustainability at Sun Concept, he is also a specialist ion issues of sustainability, biology, a biologist, consultant and responsible for strategic management of services in the areas of ecology and the ecosystem. Above all, he is an inveterate lover of life, nature and the planet. Aside from the launching of the new solar boat already navigating in Portugal, VER proposed to them, from its own convictions, four basic issues, bottomless with regard to future navigation of this “global home” that is the earth.
What real opportunities, that the sustainability level, could “an economy of ecosystems” create?
A natural ecosystem is a perfect system, it generates value while it operates, debugs errors, resolves problems, creates opportunities, and innovates forms and functions. This is our greatest inspiration, mimicking what nature does with wisdom and millions of years of experience.
Imagine a solar boat that inspires change and, soon, an entire region is gradually replacing its conventional means of transport with more sustainable alternatives. All of the impacts that existed in terms of pollution, noise, stress, economic costs with energy dependence, among other societal costs, will disappear and be replaced with objects of a more harmonious form and function, framed better with their surroundings and generating social and environmental well-being, while at the same time recovering the balance in the local economic fabric. This is indeed a boat designed to build bridges that are not always physical.
How can “half a dozen small companies transform global challenges”, some “with absolutely alarming consequences”?
The old slogan “think globally – act locally” is still perfectly ready for use, it can even be said that it has an infinite expiration date. We all have the opportunity to be proactive in the direction of a better future and, for this to happen, we need to estimate and nurture today, perhaps that is why we call it a “present”. Small things that generate great waves, they call it the butterfly effect or a sort of cosmic billiards. We believe that when good things are done, good things happen.
Climate changes, ecological degradation, trash, consumerism, the petroleum paradigm, all of these affect us and there should inspire us to seek stimuli and alliances to create possible solutions and are within our reach. We are building solar boats, how about you?
How can the solar energy market contribute now, at the global level, to the new energy paradigm? How is Portugal situated in this sector, compared with Europe and the rest of the world?
Since we are the most Westerly country in Europe, we are the last to say good-bye to the sun every day. And when we look at those rays after sunset lighting up the clouds with every colour imaginable, we are in awe. What a beautiful spectacle… and its free! The sun is like that, generous and trustworthy, and yet we still grasp a finite resource that, while generating enormous growth and well-being during the last 150 years, also brought to the surface the worst there is in greed and the struggle for power.
The absolute democratisation brought by sun, winds, waves and tides, the heat of the earth, will overthrow empires but will allow the flourishing of many communities and regions that are under the obscurantism of the cult of petroleum and the moves in the great world chess game. I don’t feel like speaking in numbers, of what we are and of what others are doing. I would rather talk about the absurdity that we are still doing so little and how much remains to be done.
Through social and environmental projects such as SunSailer, what contribution can be made by tourism – with enormous growth potential – to future sustainable development?
“Nosce Te Ipsum“, the ancient Greeks said. Know yourself, and in others we will know ao much about ourselves. In other landscapes, in other contexts, in other cultures, always under the same sun. Tourism is developing far beyond beach-and -drinks or collecting stamps on the passport.
Millions of people travel every year to do “voluntourism”, a sort of hybridisation between travelling and helping others. Millions of families use their holidays to take their children and adolescents to learn about many of the historical locations where the various civilisations grew and perished with the objective of teaching them about the fragile and magnificent human condition. Millions of seniors (who do not accept being called elderly) are looking for experiences that realise dreams that were put on hold and vibrate with the new offers of a tourism that is more ecological and responsible to society and the environment.
Millions of people operate small businesses or manage organisations that depend on the economic flows from tourism to create better conditions for their families and communities. The solar boat is one of many options to help make all this possible, in a new human ecosystem, somewhere between mother earth and the sun that keeps us spinning in a minuscule little corner of an immense universe.
by Gabriela Costa