Energy Observer and its crew may have returned to its home port of Saint-Malo, France for the winter months, but the work on its Odyssey for the Future does not ease up anytime soon, as Founder and Captain Victorien Erussard explains in an exclusive interview with H2 View.
After travelling more than 4,000 nautical miles this year around Northern Europe, the world-first hydrogen-powered vessel’s return to Saint-Malo marks the end of the odyssey in Europe, which has taken the crew from Israel to Spitsbergen via St Petersburg and Venice.
Since its launch in 2017, Energy Observer has travelled more than 18,000 nautical miles and by the end of its six-year Odyssey, will have taken in 50 countries and 101 stopovers in total under its mission to test the energies of tomorrow under extreme conditions. It’s a gruelling project, with bold ambitions and constant challenges.
Some might say, of course, that there is no time nor margin to ease up in the wider societal quest for sustainability, either.
Founder and Captain Victorien Erussard is certainly one of them. He has seen first-hand the significant pollution produced by maritime transport and the degradation of the marine ecosystem during his time as a merchant navy officer and, later during his yacht racing years, the very real evidence of this damage across various parts of the world.
And he is bringing that racing experience, together with Jérôme Delafosse (Expedition Leader) and the rest of the crew, to Energy Observer’s Odyssey for the Future.
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.
And it is, according to Erussard, a richer and more fulfilling experience than anything he had previously enjoyed. “Offshore racing is a wonderful world for technology: high modulus composite fibres, aerodynamics, hydrodynamics, foils, wings and more…It is probably one of the only sports which has doubled its performance and speed in just a few decades,” he says.
“We have spent millions in R&D, just to win cups and trophies that we stock in yacht clubs…What we do with Energy Observer is much richer in terms of technology, because we invest in energy management and renewable sources in addition with fibres, aero and hydrodynamics. And above all, the goal is to find reliable solutions to accelerate the energy transition, not just to bring an ugly cup back home.”
“We have a huge respect for the offshore racing R&D, and use a lot of their technologies, but think that our mission is much more crucial for the world, and fulfilling indeed.”
The United Nations (UN) would appear to agree, making Energy Observer the first French Ambassador to its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). “We are very proud of this,” Erussard says. “It is the acknowledgement that finding and developing solutions is now the priority, that everybody has understood that the best strategy to fight climate change is to invest and take risk.”
“And that everything is interdependent: you cannot face properly the climate change challenges without addressing the other SDGs. Poverty and gender inequality, water and biodiversity, affordable energy – each of these challenges are interconnected.”
The team are certainly aware of the significance of their project and their respective roles in it too. “Yes we are aware of this significance, because we feel and witness the high interest for hydrogen solutions all around the world,” he affirms. “On the other hand, when we are at sea, we work on the systems, optimise the control-command, the global efficiency, to reach the scheduled stopovers on time. So we are quite busy onboard!”
A relentless wave of change
Indeed, it’s clear that the whole Energy Observer team is relentless in its pursuit of proving possible clean technologies and raising much-needed awareness. During our interview we commend everyone involved in the project for its role in raising awareness and how this has been achieved, with many ‘mainstream’ media sitting up and taking notice. Erussard responds with that typical dogged determination to achieve more yet still.
“Yes we are satisfied with the millions of euros worth of communication we reach every year, but we can say that we are in a race against time and climate change, so we still need to raise awareness among students, engineers, politicians, industrial partners, all the communities.”
“Now we need to manage the second phase of the project: actually offering solutions, hydrogen stations in ports and remote areas, affordable and reliable hydrogen generators – concrete and effective actions! This will be even more satisfying, to see many hydrogen systems replace the old noisy and polluting diesel ones.”
Erussard was effusive about hydrogen energy back at the Energy Observer press conference in London in September to mark the vessel’s 47th stopover, and arguably one of its more iconic in terms of an instantly recognisable location and the home city of the International Maritime Organisation (IMO).
“Why did we choose hydrogen? It is inexhaustible, the most abundant element in the universe… it is an energy carrier, it emits only water vapour. It contains equal mass, and yet three times more energy than gasoline,” he said. “We are sure that hydrogen is the best framework to renewable energies…”
It’s easy to see why. Hydrogen provides around eight times more energy than the batteries onboard, for the same weight, and is capable of 100% production onboard – from seawater. This is purified prior to electrolysis, after which around 1kg of hydrogen equates to around 90 minutes of autonomy. It’s an incredible feat of engineering.
We discuss Energy Observer’s belief in hydrogen technologies a little further and ask if the team sees hydrogen as the key enabler in the energies transition, to which Erussard affirms with customary balance, “Yes, because it is the key component for renewables, to deal with their intermittency.”
“We are not fanatics of one single technology, we believe in the smart mix of the best energies available. But hydrogen is for now the most obvious storage solution for maritime and outdoor users, and has a key role in the energy transition if we invest in green hydrogen production.”
The idea of a diversified, clean energy mix is something everyone agrees with, a universal vision of sustainability, and has been at the heart of the Energy Observer ethos since Erussard first had the idea for the vessel out in the vast expanse of the Atlantic Ocean back in 2013.
In the midst of the Transat Jaques Vabre yachting race, following the historic coffee trading route between France and Brazil, Erussard is halfway across the Atlantic when his vessel suffers a sudden blackout loss of all power. With only the sales to keep the boat moving, he can see the natural resources all around him (sun, wind and current) but is only able to make use of one of those and arguably not to its true potential. From those moments, he derives the idea for a ship that uses different sources of energy, a catamaran powered solely by renewables.
That experience, as well as some of the sights Erussard saw during his time at sea, has clearly had a lasting and positive impact; less than seven years later, and Energy Observer is an aforementioned symbol of an energetic revolution already moving forward. Asked if there is one other particular part of the world or experience that has struck him, either onboard Energy Observer or during his former racing experiences, in terms of the damage we are doing to our planet, Erussard’s answer is simple.
“Spitsbergen, where we sailed last summer with Energy Observer,” he says. “Over there, everything is amplified; the global warming, the melting of the glaciers, the acceleration of all the climate change.”
“We went on big glaciers with scientists and we can testify that everything is accelerating, and that’s the main issue in our opinion. It goes too fast for us and the biodiversity to adapt ourselves. Spitsbergen has been used for its energy sources for centuries: first whale oil, then coal and today the fossil energies in the Arctic ocean. It is a strong symbol: this area is over-exploited for its energy sources, and yet is one of the most spectacular illustrations of global warming. It’s a kind of paradox!”
In early 2020, Energy Observer will embark on a new Odyssey and the next phase of its round-the-world-tour, taking the project west to North Asia.
It’s something of a never-ending journey and for Erussard, who’s son Georges was born at the exact same time as the launch of Energy Observer (“they are like twins, launched in life at the same second!” he says), there’s no reprieve on the agenda just yet.
“Rest is not in our priorities so far…even if we need to cut our phones and computers some weekends! This winter we install many new optimisations and new technologies. So we are short on time!”
“Then, indeed, we need to set off for Asia across the Atlantic and the Pacific…quite a long trip!” And an equally momentous one.