One of the highlights of the recent Movin'On event in Montreal (the 'World Summit on Sustainable Mobility') was a presentation of the work being done by Victorien Erussard on board his zero-emissions vessel, the Energy Observer, which is propelled by renewable-energy sourced electricity, including a decarbonized hydrogen production chain. This French sailor has set out to help save our planet.
L'Atelier: How did you come to embark on your project?
of all MARITIME goods transport
consists of crude oil and other polluting petroleum products
My background is as an officer in the merchant navy and I'm also an ocean racer. While sailing commercial ships and taking part in around a dozen transatlantic races, I came to see that the marine ecosystems are now under severe threat. I realized that I was sitting on a poison factory. Trade vessels, which run on heavy fuel, are a veritable curse for humanity. This industry is the cause of enormous pollution: we're talking about 90,000 ships, 1.2 million crew personnel, 25 million passengers and 10 billion tons of merchandise – a large proportion of which is crude oil and other petroleum products. Yet at the same time, during ocean races my boat was propelled by the wind! And even just a few years ago, solar panels were hardly being used at all. During my first-ever Route du Rhum race in 2006, no-one was equipped with solar power, everyone had on-board diesel engines. Racing yachts only began to be fitted with solar panels and wind-power equipment in 2012. During the 2013 Transat Jacques Vabre, I had a technical bug and found myself with an energy blackout in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. How could it happen that I was so dependent on the alternator when I had wind, sun and momentum? Competitive sailing is an environment where we nowadays use a lot of innovative technology and I decided I wanted to harness these assets to foster the energy transition rather than to meet a sports challenge.
So I wanted to create a mixed-energy vessel, drawing on several types of renewable energies. [Journalist, environmental activist and government minister] Nicolas Hulot, who has always given his patronage to my sailing projects, suggested that I take a look at hydrogen. Basically, Energy Observer is all about carbon-free systems. Our micro-grid is designed to use the renewable energies which are set to really take off over the next few years –everyone says so, the scientists, the industrial people – so we now have a boat which is a reduced-scale model of the energy world of tomorrow, i.e. a virtuous power generation system which is carbon-free, decentralized and digitalized. When the boat appeared five years ago, the Energy Observer team became sort of ambassadors of hydrogen. She was launched on 14 April 2017 at Saint-Malo and her odyssey is scheduled to last six years, visiting 50 different countries and making around a hundred stop-overs.
How does the ship actually work?
Energy Observer is a smart, hydrogen-based electric-powered boat designed for energy autonomy
Energy Observer runs on hydrogen produced from sea water and renewable energy. It emits neither greenhouse gases nor fine particles and it's designed for energy autonomy. Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, accounting for 75% of its mass and 92% of its total atoms. It isn't found in its natural state, you have to produce it. When we're on a stop-over or tied up at moorings we generate our energy from solar and wind-power. When our batteries are 100%-charged, we transform the energy. The trick is to balance out our energy consumption when we're sailing. If conditions worsen at sea, a fuel cell will be used to convert our hydrogen into electricity. The hydrogen feeds a fuel cell, and the electrical energy thus generated is used to propel the vessel.
I was trained as a merchant navy officer and I make no claim to be a great technician, but I'm passionate about technology and innovation. I designed the ideal energy system for my boat myself and then I worked with technical laboratories to create it.
What prospects does hydrogen hold out for other transport sectors?
Hydrogen is everywhere and, unlike lithium, doesn't need to be mined from underground. Scientists have calculated that if we continue to power electric transport and connected objects with lithium-ion batteries, the world's lithium reserves will be exhausted within 30 years. Hydrogen is very promising for long-distance travel because it has a higher energy density than a battery so it could be very useful for land transport. For example [French rail transport equipment manufacturer] Alstom has developed the first hydrogen-based train and hydrogen looks like being the perfect energy vector for proceeding with the electrification of the French rail system. Toyota, which is partnering with us in the Energy Explorer venture, also has a hydrogen-fueled vehicle, which I was lucky enough to drive last year on our tour around France. The entire transport sector will be impacted, because hydrogen helps to combat air pollution by fine particulate matter and also noise pollution, which is proving catastrophic for the undersea world. So what a pleasure it will be to switchover to electric drive! Once it's fully integrated into our modes of transport, it will help to protect air quality, safeguard the climate, improve safety, and promote greater freedom in energy provision.
So how's the world hydrogen production scene looking right now?
Well, the Japanese are out in front in this field. They've been working on hydrogen production for 20 or 30 years now and the Japanese government has invested a lot of money in the technology. People are already calling the2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo the 'Hydrogen Olympics'. I've heard about amazing plans for the lighting of the Olympic flame. And apart from Japan, there are other important players, such as Germany, China and the United States.
How can you change people's mindset?
Well, I think that when we were younger, my generation were not sufficiently aware of environmental issues. We used to believe the world was limitless, until finally we began to realize that you need to preserve our natural resources. We also used to think that change would come about as a result of action by politicians and industrialists but I now believe it's important que to make all kinds of efforts, including at the level of civil society. You can't just stand there with your arms folded and wait for things to get better. I feel I've done something good with this expedition and I sincerely believe that since I put my boat into the water last year I've helped to push things forward as regards the energy mix. With hydrogen we're at the last stage of decarbonization – this might well spell the end of wood- and gas-burning – and we're not too far from a real energy revolution. I'm extremely proud to see that Environment Minister Nicolas Hulot, who is our patron, has moved into action and announced the hydrogen deployment plan.
We're now collaborating on awareness-raising initiatives by producing films. We're currently shooting a series of eight 52-minute documentaries, which is scheduled to be shown on the Planète channel in the autumn, plus also, in conjunction with the Environment Minister, a series of short films whose purpose is to highlight innovative sustainable development solutions for the planet, which will be released on the Internet. We've also teamed up with the Education ministry to create educational content for the younger generation. I was also recently appointed as France's first ambassador for the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals and I intend to demonstrate to as many people as possible how hydrogen can help us to attain those ambitious goals set out in the Paris Agreement, for which the European Union has set targets for the year 2050.