Following the Sun: Mobile Solar Power


We’ve all seen majestic images of solar arrays: row after row of shimmering solar panels converting the sun’s rays into clean, renewable energy. While these fixed installations are undeniably impressive, one thing they’re not is mobile.

No problem. Thanks to the intriguing work of some pioneering companies, we might be coming close to a world where solar power is available wherever it’s needed.

For sheer audacity, the PlanetSolar team might take the cake in the “portable solar” category: this international group has built the world’s largest solar-powered boat. At 35 meters long, the PlanetSolar boat features an astonishing 537 square meters of solar panels on its decks that supply six blocks of lithium-ion batteries with 93.5 kilowatts of power. This stored energy is more than enough to power the 26.8 horsepower engine, which consumes 20 kilowatts per hour.

Since September 2010, the boat has been circumnavigating the globe—powered only by the sun’s rays. The visually striking craft is scheduled to complete its world tour in May 2012, when it docks in Monte Carlo.

The giant catamaran is dubbed the Tûranor PlanetSolar. Tûranor means “power of the sun” in the mythology of the novelist JRR Tolkien—a fitting name for a vessel successfully making the first trip around the world using solar energy.

Meanwhile, back on dry land, California-based clean technology company SunPods has chosen “solar power on demand” as its mission. The company designs and manufactures modular solar array units that can be installed in virtually any location with minimal site preparation and no onsite construction.

Unlike the majority of conventional ground-mounted solar arrays—which require extensive construction and assembly on site—SunPods are configured in the factory and then delivered fully assembled to the project site. This process reduces installation time by up to 85 percent, helping to make solar power significantly more accessible.

Each of the pre-manufactured, self-contained units is capable of generating 2.8 kilowatts of power—enough to power a small residence. Thanks to its modular design, customers can simply connect multiple units together if they need to scale their energy needs upwards to tackle larger projects, either on an ongoing basis or for a one-off event.

The idea has caught on with the marketplace: SunPods have now been deployed for commercial, residential, educational, and agricultural projects across the country. A cluster of three SunPods generates 750 kilowatts per month for a private home in Hollister, California, for example, while a cluster of 25 SunPods generates 10,000 kilowatts per month for a high school in Presidio, Texas.

SunPods have been equally successful providing power on a temporary basis. At the Phoenix Open golf tournament this past February, a massive, two-story hospitality tent—featuring flat screen TVs and other amenities—was powered entirely by SunPods. And at the Uncorked Wine Festival in San Francisco this May, a SunPods unit will power the Latin Rock band “Diamante” as they play on the main stage.

Whether at sea or on land, mobile solar power is an idea whose time to shine has clearly arrived.

About Author

Susan Gladwin leads the Autodesk Clean Tech Partner Program, which provides emerging cleantech companies powerful software and opportunities to help them develop solutions that address our most pressing environmental issues. In North America, Europe, Japan and Singapore, the Autodesk Clean Tech Partner Program offers $150,000 of Autodesk software for $50 to qualified cleantech innovators.

1 Comment

  1. Susan this is a great article. Recently, I read about solar ATM machines, solar airplanes, solar emergency vehicles and Japan installed a solar farm that floats atop the ocean. This is the first article I have read about a solar catamaran. Perhaps there is R&D research going on now toward the development of a solar converter for automobiles. If the creation of a solar power converter is introduced in the U.S. market at a reasonable price point…we the consumers can stop being victimized by the ever fluctuating prices of fuel and become far more independent from maintaining fuel reserves, that to my knowledge have never been released even when the prices were ridiculously high!