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.
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.”