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Meet the entrepreneur who has built India's first solar ferry, in the backwaters of Kochi

सौरभ राय
16th Jan 2016
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Energy needed to support water transport is usually very high. Innovators in the field have been trying to solve this problem for quite a while now. One of the most pragmatic solutions to this problem is solar ferries. Solar ferries do not pollute water. They do not release harmful emissions in air, are silent and passenger-friendly, and have low operational costs.

Image: Shutterstock
Images: (L) Sandith Thandasherry; (R) Solar Ferry

Although ferries that run on solar are available in the global market, none of them have been able to crack the Indian market due to their high cost. A typical solar ferry is priced Rs seven crore upwards. The price of regular ferries in India range between Rs 60 lakh and Rs two crore, based on the material it is built with, its seating capacity, and efficiency.

To fill this huge gap of price and efficiency, NavAlt Solar & Electric Boats, a Kochi-based startup, is building affordable solar ferries. These are India’s first solar ferries, and also the world’s most cost-effective ones. The 20-metre-long solar ferries, ordered by Kerala State Water Transport department, are currently under construction, and will soon set sail in the backwaters of Kerala.

The ferries are equipped with two electric motors, 20kW each, which are powered by a 50kWh Lithium battery pack. A 20kWp solar module array charges the battery pack, thereby making the boats a perfect fusion of advancements in photovoltaics, electric vehicle technology, and naval architecture. These ferries can attain a maximum speed of 7.5 knots, and run continuously for six hours on cruise speed.

NavAlt Solar & Electric Boats is a joint venture between Navgathi Marine Design & Construction, and two French companies – AltEn, and EVE Systems. Navgathi is a marine design and construction firm based in Kochi, with extensive experience in designing boats and ships. Alternative Energies (AltEn) has successfully designed and built solar ferries in Europe and is helping the project with its technology, while EVE Systems is a firm that specialises in electrical power management.

NavAlt was founded by Sandith Thandasherry, who is a 38-year-old naval architect with a plethora of experience in the field. After studying Naval Architecture from IIT Madras, Sandith worked in a shipyard in Gujarat for two years. He then went to South Korea and worked in various shipyards in the country. Soon after, he did an MBA at INSEAD, France, and started his own company, trying to build solar ferries for waterways in India.

Sandith started researching and experimenting with small solar boats, while his company Navgathi’s main business was to offer designs to shipyards and ship owners. This ensured that ends met while he experimented with the larger market he planned to disrupt. Sandith says,

“We spent a lot of money in research. We successfully built a 20-passenger solar boat, and that gave us the courage to do something big. But things never go as planned, especially in the startup environment. Nothing has worked the way we planned at the time of inception. From government regulations to technology, we have come across many unexpected surprises, which changed the course of our journey. While this can be frustrating, it comes with some great learning too.”

His company is currently discussing partnerships with numerous government bodies which are potential customers. While Kerala State Water Transport department has already joined their cause, Maharashtra government may follow suit. Sandith hopes that these deals will go through once the first boat is built and deployed. He says,

“Everyone wants to see the boat. We keep telling ourselves that we have to push the first boat out in the market and the market will open up for us. This is the only hope that has kept us going.”

Sandith’s troubles don’t end here. Being a large-scale manufacturing project, constant cash flow has been a big challenge. A few of his friends have invested in Navgathi to support his quest. Vidyanand Murunnikara, a friend from his IIT days, invested in his company. Other investors include Vidya Jithesh, Hrishikesh Unni, and Amrita Unni. With support from shipping industry veterans like Madan Kocchar and Devanandan KK, Sandith is looking forward to his ferry’s deployment in March, and hopes for the situation to get better.

What makes these ferries stand out is their cost advantage. Although the technology has been borrowed from France, the manufacturing has been done in India from scratch. This has helped Sandith bring down the cost of the ferries significantly, and also helped him ensure that the ferries suit the Indian conditions better.

While a typical solar ferry costs rupees Rs 7.5 crore when built in Europe, the cost has been brought down to Rs three crore when built in India. A well-designed conventional boat costs around Rs two crore in India. These ferries use up about Rs 20-lakh worth of fuel every year, while the solar ferries use no fuel at all.

What makes their business plan a successful one, however, is when we account for the cost incurred by the customer. Given the subsidies provided by the Central government towards solar projects in India, the end user will get these solar ferries at a 50 per cent subsidy, thereby bringing the cost lower than non-solar conventional ferries. Sandith says with a smile,

“The government is accounting for the cost of pollution. Getting solar ferries is beneficial for them too. We get to sell our ferries, and our customers do not have to compromise on the cost. Mother Nature benefits too. It’s a win-win situation for everyone.”
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