Forbes Middle East

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The Future Is Bright

Hannah Stewart
The Future Is Bright
Raphaël Domjan is now used to life back on dry land. Returning to Switzerland after completing the world’s first transcontinental solar navigation, neither treacherous seas nor life aboard the world’s largest solar-powered boat MS Tûranor PlanetSolar have dampened the vision of this eco-adventurer. Dedicated to protecting the planet, the 40 year-old Swiss man who has a diverse track-record as paramedic, mountain guide, pilot and engineer is unwavering in his belief in the power of the earth’s biggest star, the Sun. “We have a lot of energy from our sun, ten-thousand times the amount we need for all mankind…and we don’t use it,” he explains frankly. Instigating change through action rather than words, the extraordinary journey which transcended the physical, emotional and the ideological, has seen Domjan and his crew quite literally drive home the potential of this boundless resource, not least in the Middle East where solar potential is not only bright, it is blinding.

Juxtaposed against Monaco’s historic waterfront, the futuristic MS Tûranor PlanetSolar dominated the seascape as it set sail on 27th September 2010 for an adventure that was to become a world first.  A letter handwritten by Jules Verne, famed nineteenth century author of Around the World in Eighty Days, increased the crew from four members to five as they headed west in constant pursuit of the sun. For the next 19 months (584 days, 23 hours, and 31 minutes to be precise) Domjan’s team navigated the high seas calling at 27 countries, encountering Somali pirates, rescuing turtles, and assisting distressed fishermen along the way. From one month with no sign of life as they undertook the gargantuan 6000 km crossing from the Galapagos to the Marquesas Islands to the floating markets of Vietnam and turquoise waters of Bora Bora, few corners of the world were left untouched by the intrepid explorers.

Domjan’s nautical adventure constituted a first not only in terms of objective but also technological innovation. Designed by New Zealander Craig Loomes and taking over a year to construct, the unique catamaran, initially launched at the German shipyards of Knierim Yatchbau in March 2010, accounted for over half of the funding for this $30 million project. Standing at 6.1 meters in height, weighing 95 tons and with 537 square meters of solar panels, the statuesque vessel demanded as much attention as the message its crew aimed to deliver. “With the solar boat it was possible to demonstrate what we can achieve with the technology that we have today and not tomorrow,” explains Domjan.

Demonstrating just that, groundbreaking software designed to seek out the sun and provide detailed weather forecasts enabled the team to devise the best route while using minimal energy. However, nature on occasion put even the most advanced technology in its place as the sun’s rays remained hidden from view. But able to function for three consecutive days without sunlight, the expedition continued unhindered. On its best day, the awe-inspiring boat generated 661kWh of energy, but even with the weather at its worst, MS Tûranor PlanetSolar managed to eke out 25kWh, demonstrating that every cloud really does has a silver lining.

In addition to its technological edge, the carbon-fiber vessel owned by German businessman Immo Ströher was able to sail with incredible efficiency. “We went around the world with the power of one scooter,” enthuses Domjan.  Indeed, covering 60,023 kilometers on a voyage fueled purely by the sun was no mean feat, and while the crew was confident in its boat’s solar ability, insurers apparently were not, insisting that the team carry an emergency generator. “The insurance obliged us to have a backup engine on board but it was sealed and verified on departure and arrival,” explains Domjan.

Counting as one of PlanetSolar’s longest pit stops on its transcontinental route was the UAE. Running into technical difficulties, the authorities in Abu Dhabi displayed their hospitality, hosting the MS Tûranor PlanetSolar and its inhabitants for almost one month as the team undertook vital repairs and spread the solar power message across the sandy shores of the Emirates and neighboring Qatar. Home to vast quantities of two of the world’s vital resources—oil and sunlight—the Gulf region is literally bursting with energy. Domjan has no doubt as to which must take priority. “These countries have so much oil but they know that one day it will be finished and they understand that they have to do something,” he explains, adding, “In Abu Dhabi and Dubai they’ve started.”

Meeting with stakeholders from all sides of the energy equation at 2012’s World Future Energy Summit (WFES) in Abu Dhabi, Domjan emphasized the need for a change while demonstrating the art of what is possible. “They were thinking it was impossible to go with this kind of boat and even if they believe in this type of technology, it was a big surprise,” he explains. Attesting to the significance of the team’s achievements, show manager Naji Haddad, describes PlanetSolar as the embodiment of everything WFES is about: innovation, solutions, private investment and technological advances. “For me, the PlanetSolar expedition is a tangible example of the innovations being made in solar energy,” explains Haddad. “The catamaran’s arrival into Abu Dhabi for this year’s summit was a highlight of the event,” he adds.

Efforts from champions of sustainable energy including WFES seem to be paying off; according to the Renewable Energy Policy Network for the 21st Century, global new investment in renewable energy stood at $257 billion last year—an increase of 17% over 2010. Meanwhile, 2011 figures released by the United Nations Development Program reveal investment of $5 billion in 2010 for the MENA region alone—a 104% increase on the previous year. Haddad claims that Middle East nations are forecast to spend almost $20 billion on renewable energy projects over the short term, with more long-term goals also in the mix. “As an example, Saudi Arabia recently announced plans to install as much as 40 gigawatts of solar energy in the next two decades which, in my opinion, offers potentially immense opportunities,” he explains.

Pointing also to Shams 1, one of the world’s largest concentrated solar power plants located in Abu Dhabi’s western region, Haddad highlights the large-scale projects being launched across the region, as the Middle East looks to take advantage of the sunlight and space that it has in abundance. However, he stresses that realizing sustainable energy ambitions requires responsible integration of alternative and conventional energies, as well as innovation to manage rising domestic power demand.

Doing its part to drive change in the Middle East and with its first adventure complete, MS Tûranor PlanetSolar is now back in the hands of its owner and a new crew with exciting projects in the pipeline. According to the PlanetSolar team, the vessel will be used for a scientific expedition along the Gulf Stream in 2013 with a tour then planned in the Black Sea to promote the use of solar energy even further.

For MS Tûranor PlanetSolar and the expedition founder alike, the return to Monaco did not mark the end but the beginning in the quest for a sustainable world. Recording the events of the past two years, Domjan is now working on a book and documentary, which promise to inspire minds far beyond the countries that welcomed the PlanetSolar team to their shores.

Looking to the future, the solar energy pioneer is focusing his attention on the Solar Planet Foundation which he set up to support research and development of renewable energies as well as other eco-adventures. But as a hyperactive person by his own admission, it won’t be long before Domjan is back in the driving seat. “I want to do something else more ambitious…There are lots of things to do with solar energy that could be much more ambitious than a solar boat,” he explains.

Domjan’s venture into the world of solar power began back in 2001 with the development, in collaboration with his brother and a group of friends, of the first web hosting and email powered by the sun. Then, spurred by a visit to an Icelandic lake that he remembered as a frozen glacier just ten years before, the eco-adventurer became more determined than ever to do something to protect the planet. Today, Domjan’s achievements are extraordinary, but he is well aware of the challenges that remain, not least the high price tag still associated with solar power. However, PlanetSolar’s founder warns, “The price may be more expensive today, but the cost if we don’t change, if we continue to burn oil, in the end will be much more expensive.”

The road to sustainability may be long, but Raphaël Domjan sees not obstacles but potential. On his way to return the precious letter entrusted to him by a Swiss museum, he explains, “Jules Verne said that one day man would be able to destroy or to save everything. I am an optimist.” But Domjan stresses the importance of solidarity “We have to be together. We are pioneers of solar energy but we have to all together be pioneers of change.”
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