Energy Observer: The story behind the expedition

Energy Observer: The story behind the expedition

It’s 2013 and experienced ocean racer Victorien Erussard is in the middle of the Transat Jaques Vabre – a yachting race that follows the historic coffee trading route between France and Brazil.

He’s halfway across the Atlantic when his vessel suddenly suffers a blackout and a complete loss of all power. Erussard realises his engine has failed and he has nothing but the sails to keep the boat moving.

This frustrates Erussard, who is in the middle of the ocean with energy resources all around him (the sun, wind and current), but no way of keeping his electronics running. His chances of winning the race are jeopardised and he tells himself never again will he find himself in a situation like this.

In that same moment, he comes up with the idea for a ship that uses different sources of energy, a catamaran powered solely by renewables. Having witnessed the significant pollution produced by maritime transport and the degradation of the marine ecosystem during his time as a merchant navy officer, Erussard pictures a clean and intelligent boat capable of optimising the energy mix available. Thus, what we know today as Energy Observer is born.

With a combination of three sources of renewable energy (sun, wind and hydro-kinetic) and two forms of storage (batteries and hydrogen), Energy Observer is a symbol of an energetic revolution already moving ahead, adapted to all territories and all latitudes. It is the first vessel in the world that is capable of producing hydrogen onboard using seawater by electrolysis.

© Energy Observer – Amélie Conty

A reconditioned former 30.5 metre legendary racing catamaran, Energy Observer is now a veritable experimental platform for future energies. Captained by Erussard, he is leading a crew, together with Jérôme Delafosse, Expedition Leader, (both pictured above) on a six-year mission around the globe to show that shipping can be decarbonised and prove a cleaner world is possible.

By undertaking an autonomous world tour thanks to this innovative energy system, Energy Observer is demonstrating the performance of hydrogen to decision makers, companies and citizens, in order to promote its large-scale deployment in the decades to come. The historic ‘Odyssey for the future’ will see the Energy Observer team visit 50 countries and make 101 stopovers in total.

After an inaugural tour of France (2017) and the Mediterranean (2018), Energy Observer spent 2019 tackling the high latitudes with two objectives: to immerse its technologies in climatic conditions radically different from those of 2018, and to discover the innovations and challenges of Northern Europe, Scandinavia and Russia.

A particularly poignant moment for the experimental catamaran was when it arrived on the island of Spitsbergen in the Svalbard archipelago, considering by the scientific community as ground zero of climate change, and proved it is possible to navigate in extreme conditions in total autonomy by drawing energy from nature, without any ecological impact.

“That was really something,” Louis-Noël Viviès, Energy Observer’s General Manager, tells H2 View when we meet with him in London on board Energy Observer during its 47th stopover, and last leg of its Northern Europe tour. “Reaching the Arctic with renewable energies and hydrogen may have seemed impossible, but we have done it.”

© Energy Observer – Marta Sostres

Like Erussard, Viviès (pictured left) has years of experience in the maritime sector with a background in yachting and competitive sailing. As General Manager, he’s part of the Energy Observer shore team and is in charge of partnerships and development of the project, as well as following the technical and industrial installations on the boat.

“We are among the first to use the hydrogen chain and it was a world first to use an electrolyser onboard the boat. It had never been done before,” he enthuses. “Everybody was looking at us like ‘this is crazy’. Offshore races, they want to play with hydrogen, but they think it’s a very complicated thing.”

“After about one year, we discovered it was quite simple, reliable and affordable, so we pushed and decided to integrate all the hydrogen chain from the seawater into the electricity onboard. Now we work to develop the system to be totally autonomous, like we did between St Petersburg and Spitsbergen this summer.”

Memorable moments

Wherever Energy Observer goes, it cannot pass unnoticed. The experimental vessel is covered with solar panels and has a futuristic look that attracts curiosity at every step.

And it attracted the attention of Israel’s police when it arrived in May 2018, where there was a lack of understanding of the nature of hydrogen onboard and a lack of harmonised regulations led to confusion.

© Jérôme Delafosse – Energy Observer

“On Energy Observer’s arrival in Israel last year the temperature was very high, about 45ºC, and we had some issues on the hydrogen chain,” Viviès recalls.  “We decided during the night to modify all the cooling systems in order to enable us to reach Israel.”

“So, it’s very, very hot outside and we have all these solar panels which are black/dark and the temperature inside the hull is just incredible. We started to have some concerns about the temperature inside the fuel cell compartment but thankfully we see the harbour of Tel Aviv just up ahead.”

“However, when we arrived, we had this problem with the security zone where it was controlled. All of these policemen arrived on big ribs because they were aware of the arrival of Energy Observer, but they didn’t understand the hydrogen aspect. They didn’t know if it was a bomb or if it was dangerous or whatever, even though they had been warned by the French embassy.”

“They just discovered there was this big boat of hydrogen arriving and so they took all of the crew to the police station for hours and hours to question them. It was stressful to have this technological issue and at the same so many policemen. At the end of the story, of course it was ok, and we went into the harbour. We learned a lot in Israel, the country is very dynamic in terms of energy. But the arrival was very stressful.”

A month later (June 2018), Energy Observer arrived in Mykonos, Greece, an island popular with superyachts during the summer months. It is estimated there are 52,000 superyachts – luxury vessels over 24 metres long that are used for private or commercial use – navigating the planet. This fleet represents the equivalent of about 520 million cars, or half of the world’s automobiles.

“When Energy Observer arrived in Mykonos, we asked to be on one side of the harbour away from all the parties and where there were no superyachts,” Viviès tells H2 View. “But the Mayor of Mykonos and the port wanted to hail the presence of Energy Observer and so they put us on the main dock with a huge superyacht either side of us.”

© Energy Observer

“When we arrive in a new city, we always clean the boat so it’s spotless. After a couple of hours of arriving, one of the superyachts next to Energy Observer started up its big diesel generators because they didn’t have enough power on the dock, and the exhausts are quite low on these yachts.”

“There were six generators running at the same time just for the air conditioning on this superyacht and within half an hour Energy Observer was black, covered by black dust from the fumes.”

“We need to act for that, we desperately need to find solutions for these big superyachts. They want to go to the most attractive areas in the world, but they are polluting these areas with their generators. About 80% of the diesel it burns is used for the generators. The first step we need to take in the maritime sector is to replace all the diesel generators with hydrogen generators.”


During the winter months Energy Observer will return to its home port in Saint-Malo, France to undergo important updates as part of a third refit, before setting off in February 2020 for North Asia.

H2 View understands Energy Observer will visit Tokyo as part of its fourth tour, arriving in time for the Olympics.

“Of course the biggest stopover next year will be Tokyo. Tokyo is pushing for a hydrogen society globally and I think most of the Olympic Village will be powered by hydrogen,” Viviès explains.

“We wanted to go there to showcase that we can have a smart grid producing its own clean hydrogen and that we use it on board the boat to power and everything onboard that you would have in a house, for example dishwasher, and washing machine.”

“The idea is to showcase to the Japanese that today we have all the technologies and that hydrogen is not only suitable for cars and buses, but it should be used by the maritime world too because the maritime world is one of the biggest consumers of energy.”

© Energy Observer – Antoine Drancey

Going forward, Viviès said he “absolutely sees” hydrogen as the key enabler.

“Batteries are much too heavy. Some projects we see using batteries come back to us after six months of calculation and say, ‘ok we need to save three tonnes otherwise the boat is too heavy and needs more power’. More power means more batteries and more weight, it’s a vicious cycle. The only way to get out of this vicious cycle is to have a lighter storage system,” Viviès explains.

“We believe hydrogen is quite a simple and efficient system and we will continue to work with the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) to help convince the maritime community that hydrogen is the way forward.”

Coming soon, an interview with Energy Observer’s Founder and Captain Victorien Erussard.

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