Dominic Bradbury, Journalist & Writer
 
FINANCIAL TIMES – SOLAR BOATS – ‘A SUNNY SIDE OF THE FLEET’

CHRISTOPH BEHLING – SOLAR YACHTS
WORDS – DOMINIC BRADBURY

As a symbol of both responsible luxury and green travel, a solar super yacht is hard to beat. It raises the enticing prospect of a boat which is not only well designed, desirable and functional but that offers unheard of freedom on the sea with its own built in power source and desalination plant. As a form of eco transport, the solar yacht makes enormous sense as we struggle to balance the desire for travelling the ocean with the ever growing need to take a sensitive approach to our water worlds and their delicate eco systems.

For designer Christoph Behling and his practice Solarlab, the luxury solar yacht is the latest and most sophisticated in a long line of solar powered boats. Behling has created small solar powered pleasure boats and large shuttles that can carry 120 people. But his Hybrid 119 luxury solar yacht – at 36m long with a cost of around $9m – takes solar travel into a new dimension of sophistication.

"We need to design and create these kind of icons, these well designed dream objects that are environmentally friendly," says Behling, "so that people can see and understand that they can have these things – and all that comes with it – and have it responsibly. The problem has been that these boats don't really exist yet. We need to create a boat that is better than the normal rather than an alternative. That's the way to encourage change, because society won't change just for something that's alternative."

As well as designing watches for Tag Heuer, including a bespoke golf watch for Tiger Woods, Behling has established himself as a pioneer of solar transport. Approached by a Middle Eastern private client, Behling has developed the Hybrid 119 as a serious alternative to the existing generation of fuel guzzling super yachts. It will be powered by a mixed system of solar generation – drawing from pearl sized, semi transparent new generation Japanese made solar cells on the roof and sides of the boat, which will feed the boat's electric batteries – plus a bio-diesel engine which will kick in when extra power is needed to take the boat up to speeds of 25 to 30 knots. Behling estimates that for 90 per cent of the time, the yacht will be powered by solar alone.

"The solar generation does two things," says Behling, who founded Solarlab in London just over a decade ago and also teaches design at the Royal College of Arts. "It powers everything that's running on board and it allows you to run at a slow cruising speed. But if you want to push it up to a higher speed then the electric engine won't be able to do it alone so then the bio-diesel engine kicks in to give you more speed.

"When we looked at these super yachts we realised that they do have massive power needs because they are like little palaces, illuminated all the time and with all kinds of things on board, but are not actually taken out to sea very often. The solar generators create constant power for the yacht all year round and do it totally quietly."

Behling suggests that the initial outlay on the solar yacht might add 20 per cent to the price compared to a conventional equivalent but fuel costs will be minimal in comparison. At the same time the yacht will have its own solar powered desalination unit which does away with the need for vast fresh water storage tanks, saving weight and energy.

"What I really like about the boat is this possibility of total independence," Behling says. "Everything will work for you as you cruise without having to constantly fill up with fuel or water. The attitude behind it, creating the possibility of a carbon neutral yacht or close to carbon neutral, is very positive and exciting."

The yacht , the first of which should be complete by the end of 2009, will have six en suite staterooms with space for five crew. There will be some flexibility in specifications and finishes, while for the first yacht Behling is using bamboo for the flooring and many of the internal spaces. There will be built in dive support systems and the possibility of an integrated mini-submarine. Solarlab are working with a German shipyard who hope to deliver at least two boats a year. The solar canopy and sidings will be non-obtrusive and semi-transparent, drawing in both sunlight and reflected light from the water, while for most of the time there will be neither engine noise nor emissions. The design will be simple, contemporary and high spec.

"We need to try and achieve a modern vision of luxury," says Behling, "one that is based on the ultimate luxury of freedom as well as responsibility. You will be saving tons of CO2 emissions with this boat on every journey you take and in travelling by solar power you go in the comfort of knowing that you are protecting the very environment which you love, enjoy and want to explore."

The yacht has some things in common with another project that Solarlab are developing for a floating solar villa, well suited to sensitive areas like the Maldives. With interest from hoteliers and resort operators the Starwood Group in developing the villas as an eco resort concept, the villas will be part boat and part house with no need for generators or alternative power sources. They can be towed in and out of locations and can easily cope with changing sea levels.

"We have this ambition to go to some of the most untouched and beautiful places in the world but of course by going there we touch and harm them. If you can create something as gentle as a floating villa then it would be a solution and can be very beautiful while being solar it is self sufficient."

The villas would cost around 1.5m for a 300 square metre living space, with solar generation and water desalination built in and would be prefabricated like a boat, with no need for intrusive cranes, diggers and construction crews.

At the same time Behling – who was born in Switzerland and educated in Germany before moving to Britain – is working on solar powered golf carts, emergency shelters other buildings. But he is also passionately committed to developing green alternatives to public transport. Having already built a solar ferry for Hamburg Harbour and the Solar Shuttle for the Serpentine in London, among others, Behling is developing a hybrid ferry with a power system similar to the solar yacht. But rather than taking a dozen people, the solar ferry could take 250 people up and down the Thames.

"We are not naval architects by nature but we got into solar boats because we were thinking about the best possible way to communicate the possibilities of solar energy and solar transport and being fascinated by the creative opportunities," says Behling. "The Thames is a highway that is totally underused and boats are an incredibly efficient form of transport. If you think about the Olympic Games then solar or hybrid boats would really make sense as the Olympic site and central London are linked by water. I am quite optimistic about it. If you see the boat and the way it works it would difficult to argue for anything else. You can go green with very little effort."

Behling is also fielding enquiries for solar tourist trip boats and dive boats, again so well suited to sensitive environments. Solarlab feel a keen responsibility themselves to develop products that really work, as well as looking great, so that they will draw in others to solar transport and energy.

"The super yacht is a boat with which you can enjoy the environment in a responsible and sensitive way and there is this growing awareness of environmental issues. There is an element of ego and status involved in super yachts but the trend towards environmental awareness includes the luxury end of the market. The mega rich are becoming more responsible in their choices and so you see Hollywood stars choosing a Prius rather than a sports car.

"But we do want to avoid just paying lip service to the idea of an environmentally responsible boat. Society is waking up to these issues but there's a danger that if you just pay lip service to these issues in design then it will backfire. If we misuse the trust placed in us as designers then society could soon turn cynical. We should only be designing products that really do work and make sense and look great so that they lead to even bigger change. If we are serious about it all then boats are a really good place to start. It's all about inspiring change."

Solarlab – www.solarlab.org – 0208 962 9425.