26 May 2010 10:04

Solar Sailor's commercial debut begins in China - Robert Dane, founder of Solar Sailor

Shanghai. May 26. INTERFAX-CHINA - Concerns over oil shortages and rising fuel costs have brought about a strong demand for hybrid and alternative energy vehicles in recent years. The aquatic vessel market is no exception. Robert Dane, the founder and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Solar Sailor Holdings Ltd., is keen to talk about his company's innovative hybrid boat designs and commercial developments.

An enthusiastic sailor, Dane was a country doctor in the southeastern Australian town of Ulladulla. One day in 1996, as he stood on the banks of a shimmering lake, he was struck with the idea of creating a solar-powered boat.

With no background in engineering, it took Dane countless hours of planning and step-by-step problem solving to come up with designs for a prototype of his first solar-paneled sail boat. In addition to solar power, this boat also utilizes wind power - and some oil. In 1997, Dane's first "solar sailor" won the Advanced Technology Boat Race in Canberra, Australia.

Dane founded Solar Sailor in 1999, and subsequently received a $1 million grant from the Australian government to build a $3 million ferry in the Sydney Harbor for the 2000 Olympic Games. Soon afterward, the company began attracting the interest of corporate investors, including Panasonic.

Despite the initial wave of enthusiasm for solar-powered vessels, Solar Sailor still had a difficult time raising enough capital for its future ventures.

"We had been trying to commercialize the concept since 2000, when the price of oil was $20 a barrel." Dane said. "No one had even heard of global warming or hybrid vehicles yet, which made it difficult to find serious investors."

But the winds of fortune were soon to change. With substantial jumps in oil prices and growing concerns over global warming, a swell of interest in alternative energy and hybrid vehicles began to gather momentum the world over. Through this new commitment to protecting the environment, Solar Sailor has sailed past shoals of uncertainty to pursue the commercialization of its eco-friendly vessels.

In 2005, the company won a contract to design two unmanned vessels for the US NAVY. Additionally, it received $3 million from a German venture capital firm, as well as investments from a solar energy company.

So far, Solar Sailor has over 160 shareholders, most of whom are individual investors.

Dane said that although the company has been losing money since he founded it, shareholders remain sanguine about the future.

The company now looks to be on track for commercialization, as orders from China have steadily increased in recent years. In 2008, Solar Sailor received an order from the Hong Kong Jockey Club for four solar-powered ferries.

Moreover, the company's boat design caught the attention of its solar module supplier, Suntech Power Holdings Co. Ltd.

"Dr. Zhengrong Shi [SunTech's CEO] liked our design and expressed great interest in building a solar boat for the Shanghai Expo," said Dane. Indeed, In 2008, Solar Sailor won a contract from SunTech to design such a boat for the Expo.

SunTech's 186-passenger VIP boat is due to be launched on the Huangpu River in Shanghai on June 5. Additionally, the Hong Kong Jockey Club's first ferry will be delivered the same month, with the remaining due by the end of August.

When discussing the two contracts, Dane smiled and said that this year the company will turn its first profit since its founding.

Dane said that the company's Solar Sailor Hybrid Marine Power (HMP) and Solar Sail technologies are suitable for a wide range of boats, from small unmanned vessels to large tankers, including ferries, tourist cruisers and private yachts.

According to Dane, unmanned boats using Solar Sail technology require no fuel at all, while its Sydney ferry consumes just one-third of the fuel required by conventional watercraft. Specific fuel consumption figures from the Hong Kong Jockey Club ferry will be released after its initial launch, but it is expected to save a significant amount of fuel costs for the club. Meanwhile, SunTech's Expo boat will not only conserve a considerable amount of energy, but also provide a quieter and more pleasant ferry experience.

Because of their excellent energy efficiency, Dane says that the payback period for his boats' relatively higher upfront cost is only one year.

Another promising piece of news for the company is the declining price of solar modules. "When we started with the prototype, we paid $12 per watt," Dane said. The company paid $8 per watt for the Sydney ferry in 2000, and only $2.3 per watt for their recent Hong Kong boats. "So, in only ten years, we have seen a very dramatic price drop," Dane said.

Solar Sailor is doing a study in conjunction with a Japanese ship company to equip bulk carriers with solar sails. This is in addition to an agreement reached with China Ocean Shipping Group Company (COSCO) in 2008 to develop and apply Solar Sailor's technology for their tankers and bulk carriers.

According to Dane, a solar sail carrier with a speed of 60 knots will see its fuel consumption reduced by 3 to 5 percent from solar power and 20 to 40 percent from wind power. "These are very big numbers in the marine industry," Dane said.

"In the short term, China will definitely be the go-to market, because America and Europe are experiencing economic problems right now," Dane said.

"China has the money and political vision for how it wants to develop," Dane thought. "And the government is actually promoting carbon-neutral development."

Dane expects that ferry operators, hotel and resort owners will be large potential clients of the company. Solar Sailor intends to get as much exposure as possible in China in the next three months after the launch of the Suntech boat at the Expo and the four Hong Kong ferries.

"It's very busy time for us," Dane said, "because after all this work, after ten years, it's all coming together now."