Energy Observer, first round-the-world hydrogen-powered vessel, docks at Rainbow Harbor for first-ever US stopover

The Energy Observer docked at Rainbow Harbor in Long Beach on Thursday, April 22. The vessel uses renewable energies created onboard to showcase climate solutions. (Emma DiMaggio | Signal Tribune)

The Energy Observer, the first round-the-world hydrogen-powered vessel, docked at Long Beach’s Rainbow Harbor for its first-ever stopover in the United States on Thursday, April 22.

“It’s important to talk about the impacts of climate change, but it’s also really good to showcase solutions,” onboard scientist Katia Nicolet said. “Yes, we need to do something. This is one of the things we could be doing to show that it’s not something we can do in 2050— it’s something we can do today.”

The French vessel began its years-long odyssey in 2017 from Saint-Malo, France and has since traveled more than 30,000 nautical miles powered by wind, solar and hydrogen power.  

The catamaran is a former racing vessel used by Sir Peter Blake, a New Zealand sailor who helped set a round-the-world sailing record in the ‘90s and won America’s Cup. Blake was later killed by pirates near South America while monitoring global warming and pollution for the United Nations in 2001. 

“We got rid of the mast and everything and we modified everything,” general manager Louis Noel said. “When she was a sailing boat she was 15 tonnes, now she’s 35 tonnes. We wanted to recycle, and not to build because we want to have the lowest carbon footprint possible.”

Three generations of solar panels coat the body of the vessel, undulating with the curves of the deck and bridge.

The Energy Observer is coated in solar panels from bow to stern. Solar energy is just one type of renewable energies the vessel uses. (Emma DiMaggio | Signal Tribune)

Though the ship uses a mix of energies, the Energy Observer is primarily powered by hydrogen made on-ship using a process that purifies seawater, splits it into its primary elements (hydrogen and oxygen) and electrolyzes it. 

“Many specialists called this boat a floating smart grid because it goes from the drop of water to the kilowatt to the propeller,” Noel said. “We’d like to showcase every way that this system, in a village, in an island, even in your neighborhood, to get it independent and autonomous with absolutely no emission.”

The vessel’s primary purpose is research—testing innovative and sustainable technologies in what Noel called “the worst conditions possible.” 

Technologies have to stand up to things like extreme heat, unpredictable ocean conditions and oxidation from salty seawater.

General manager Louis Noel shows an internal interface by which the crew observes energy usage and safety sensors. (Emma DiMaggio | Signal Tribune)

“At the very beginning, this was a kind of a floating laboratory for renewable energies, solar, wind, currents, everything, and we try to have the best mix to be autonomous,” he said. The lab focuses on research and design (RND).

“I’m just really excited to be part of this,” Nicolet said. “It’s a floating lab and we can see the excitement from people that we meet everywhere.”

When the COVID-19 pandemic stopped the vessel in its tracks last year, the crew used the opportunity to their advantage.

“Everything shut down and they needed to stay productive during this time,” Nicolet said.

“Talking about the fact that we are fully autonomous, right, [being isolated] is almost what this ship has been built for,” she said. “Being able to continue, despite all the countries around you shutting down.”

The crew was allowed to go on land for food, but all of their other energy needs were met by the vessel’s onboard technology. 

Though some of the technology on the ship is quite expensive, the team hopes that, through their RND and industry partners, more industries will adopt their climate-friendly solutions. 

Nicolet said that the point of the vessel isn’t to create more high-tech catamarans, but rather to show the efficiency of mixed-use renewable energies. 

“The point is that we need to find different solutions depending on where we are,” she said. “Whether you have a big boat that’s mobile, whether you’re living on land, whether you’re living on a small island. There is a solution for it.”

The Energy Observer will be docked at Rainbow Harbor in Long Beach until Wednesday, April 28.

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