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September 30, 2014


Sol, The Sun-Powered Boat

At the Waterford Tugboat Roundup on September 7 I got a chance to talk to the builder of Sol, Mr. David Borton, who has some pretty serious plans to build more solar powered watercraft. He is a former professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) who retired from that job two months ago to pursue the production of solar boats. Sol is the third solar boat that he has built, each larger than the last.

Mr. David Borton, Builder Of Solar Powered Boats
Mr. David Borton, Builder Of Solar Powered Boats

The awning above Sol is made of solar panels that generate a whopping 2000 watts stored in batteries with 7.6 kilowatt hours of capacity, running a 1200 watt AC motor. The DC current is converted to AC right at the motor. Because the load (motor) is so close to the power source, and because there is no need to convert the electricity to AC and then back to DC (like you have to do in a typical house with solar panels) there is almost no power loss. Thus the boat can run for days on the charged batteries if the sun doesn’t shine.

The interesting thing that Mr. Borton has found is that if he runs Sol at 5 knots then he can run it indefinitely. But if he increases the speed to six or seven knots or more, the draw on the batteries goes up exponentially, resulting in depleted batteries. This is an interesting problem. Asking Mr. Borton about it I could see that he is giving it heavy consideration. I’m confident that he or someone else will solve this problem, and eventually we will have solar powered speed boats.

Sol Tied To The Betty June Of Castleton At The Watervliet Tugboat Roundup
Sol Tied To The Betty June Of Castleton At The Waterford Tugboat Roundup

His current project is a 40 foot craft that can carry heavy loads, something more than a mere demonstration model. He is building it at the Schodack public high school (which is across the Hudson River from Albany in Rensselaer County) in collaboration with the teachers and students. His idea is to produce a versatile practical craft that can used for a) industrial uses, such as carrying heavy loads such as cargo or a crane for dredging, b) carrying passengers or c) as a pleasure craft or houseboat that can sleep six comfortably.

Mr. Borton told me that eventually he wants to produce solar powered boats for sale, to start a solar boat building business. I’m absolutely astonished to discover that no one in this country appears to have done that yet, to build solar powered boats for practical use. I can only wonder why no one has tried to manufacture solar boats, perhaps there has been no recognized demand, perhaps no bank will support such a project, or maybe past efforts have been suppressed by corporate thugs wielding baseball bats. Who knows.

Construction Of Sol, 2011
Construction Of Sol, 2011

I say that while large ships and other heavy craft must, for the time being, still be run by fossil fuel, all pleasure craft with engines should be solar electric. One of the problems that The Wife and I see from the vantage point of our low paddle boats is the pollution floating on the surface of the water caused by boats leaking petroleum. I’ve learned to see the oil slicks floating on the surfaces of waterways, oil that piddles from running gasoline and diesel engines.

I’ve come to the conclusion that all petroleum powered engines leak into the water, some worse than others. One of the biggest offenders are the Ski-Dos, the personal watercraft. We often encounter trails of oily foam left in the water where these noisy and annoying little beasts have passed, one can actually follow the trails and eventually find the offending ski-do. But many older engines and many newer speedboats are just as filthy.

The water surrounding the marinas where pontoons and yachts park is often one big oil slick, like a sheet of plastic on top of the water with the waves moving underneath. These slicks tend to collect together and move downstream at their own pace, more slowly than the water itself. All the little oil slicks upstream eventually find their way down to the Albany waterfront. Sometimes, like after a big regional storm, the oil floating on the Hudson River near Albany is so thick and nasty it coats my hands and ankles and irritates my skin.

At Higher Speeds Sol Bleeds Power
At Higher Speeds Sol Bleeds Power

So what would happen if all the pleasure boats on the Hudson and Mohawk Rivers, and on all the upstream tributaries such as the Sacandaga, were solar electric? The oil slicks and general pollution would be greatly reduced and the noise level and air pollution would drop precipitously. I believe we would begin to see a serious change in the ecosystem of the cleaner and quieter Hudson River, resulting in more food for fish and therefore more and healthier fish.

Solar electric watercraft should be the common standard by now, as should solar powered land vehicles. But that hasn’t happened. In the late 1970s solar technology was poised to take off big time, but one of the first acts by dead president Ronnie Reagan when he moved into the White House was to kill all research, tax credits and subsidies for solar. At the same time the fossil fuel corporations launched a successful propaganda blitz in the media to discredit solar power, and later those corporations invested a lot of capital in suppressing existing solar technology. Today America is controlled by these corporations and dependent upon foreign sources of oil, this is Reagan’s legacy.

As a result solar technology has stagnated these last forty years or so, but development did not come to a halt. Individuals and small groups of inventors and engineers have been defying the suppression tactics of the fossil fuel corporations and by the politicians owned by those corporations. Sol is an example of that grassroots initiative, it appears that there is currently quite a bit of building of experimental boats around the country.

It is clear that we Americans cannot hope to solve our myriad of economic problems until we break the backs of the fossil fuel corporations, undo their stranglehold on our lives. The key to doing so is solar power, free energy for everyone. The corporate owners realized this way back in the 1970s, thus they have fought hard to make our country artificially dependent upon their products.

Sol Heads Out For A Spin At Watervliet, Captain Borton At The Helm
Sol Heads Out For A Spin At Waterford,
Captain Borton At The Helm

David Borton’s solar electric boats are one of the essential ideas that might save us from ourselves. This is how we the people fight back against America’s corporate enemies and destroy their power.