UN Sustainable Development Goals: Pioneering solar-powered electric ferry transport

Published: Jul 18, 2017 By

Moez Jomaa [square]On September 25th 2015, the United Nations (UN) agreed that all its 193 member countries adopt 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs). The key agenda was to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure prosperity for all. In this article we explore how innovative researchers at SINTEF, Norway, are leading a collaborative project on solar fuelled electric ferries in Africa and the Middle East to help reach targets for SDG7.

Headquarted in Trondheim, Norway — SINTEF is one of Scandinavia’s largest independent research organisations, whose projects span both public and private sectors. Positioned primarily as a technology institute, its departments include those for renewable energy, ocean space, health and welfare. Current research has a distinct focus on sustainability, whose impact reaches far beyond the coastal fjords of Europe’s northernmost country.

In 2016, a SINTEF-led three year collaborative research project was proposed for the introduction of solar powered plug-in electric ferries in coastal regions in the Middle East, Africa (MENA) and Tunisia. The project leaders highlighted that transforming existing ferries into these low emission forms of transport had large potential for reducing fossil fuel consumption. In the first instance, a pilot project was proposed for Tunisia, before its wider adoption.

Later in the same year, the project won the ‘Powering the Future We Want’ award from the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN-DESA). The prize received — a $1 million energy grant, is helping to fast-track the project. We caught up with project leader at SINTEF, Dr. Moez Jomâa, to discuss the research involved and its contribution to the UN’s SDGs [1]. Dr Jomâa, a Tunisian-born national, completed a doctorate in Mechanics and has a sustained research interest in renewable energy and new technologies. He described SINTEF’s current institutional vision as ‘technology for a better society.’

Can you describe your current role(s)?

My current research at SINTEF focusses on the production of silicon for photovoltaic (PV) solar cells. In addition, I manage several multi-disciplinary research projects in diverse fields ranging from the treatment of ballast water by electro-dialysis in the shipping industry — to the use of advanced data mining techniques for quality control in the manufacturing industry. I have a firm believe that researchers should have a leading role in resolving societal challenges like climate change, ocean pollutions and access to affordable and clean energy to everyone.

Can you briefly describe your career path to date, including the scope of your current research project?

I hold a M.Sc and Ph.D. in Mechanics from Pierre and Marie Curie University, Paris, France and an Engineering Diploma from Ecole Polytechnique de Tunisie. I joined SINTEF in early 2008 just after graduation. I am also a research member at the Research Centre for Sustainable Solar Cell Technology in Norway.

My current research project at SINTEF is on ‘Solar Fuelled Electric Maritime Mobility.’ We have several collaborators on the project including the Tunisia Agency for Energy Conservation, Regional Environmental Center from Hungary, National Engineering School of Tunis and European Center for Women and Technology from Norway.

Our aim is to produce solar fuelled plug-in electric vehicles sustainably powered by solar photovoltaic panels (PV panels). The vehicles, in our case ferries, have solar PV panels installed on the roof and kept on-shore and the idea is to use them for passenger transportation. The electricity generated on land is stored in batteries and used to recharge the vehicle battery between two successive trips. Any excess energy produced is fed to the national grid using a Net-metering exchange scheme.

We’ll be performing techno-economic analysis of the competitiveness of this type of transport, compared to the current fossil fuelled ferries in operation. In this respect, the project is addressing all four approaches for mitigating transport related greenhouse gas emissions: efficiency gains, fuel switch, modal shift and transport demand moderation.

Our primary motivation behind this project proposal is to help achieve significant reduction of greenhouse emissions from the transportation sector. I think transport driven by renewable energies, (like solar power), is the pivotal way forward. Some current approaches, for example, having an electric car charged by electricity that’s being produced from fossil fuels don’t help much in reducing emissions. This is especially true in urban areas, which are already built around cars. Energy and transport need to be integrated with city planning.

 

"I think transport driven by renewable energies, like solar power, is the pivotal way forward."

 

Secondly, we’d like to show how low emission ferries with electric propulsion have significant potential for providing affordable public transportation services — not dependent on the existing road infrastructure. Indeed, they have the added benefit of diverting passenger traffic away from roads. If well designed, electric ferry routes can also decrease travel distances. A new coastal network of electric ferries could technically be constructed in 5 years from an initial implementation decision, while highways and intercity trains require time horizons of 10-15 years.

 

"I have a firm belief that researchers should have a leading role in resolving societal challenges like climate change, ocean pollution and access to affordable and clean energy to everyone."

 

The project focuses on Tunisia and the MENA region. Can you describe the logic to this choice of location?

The motivation for choosing these regions centres on the fact that there is huge potential for harnessing solar energy. We have an ongoing cooperation with the Tunisian Agency for Energy Conservation and as a result, it became an obvious choice for the implementation of the pilot project. Although we’re targeting the MENA region in our research, results of the project will be valid for other regions in the world where solar irradiation is abundant.

Can you recount the journey that you have made so far, from the point you proposed the research project to progress made towards a working prototype ferry, to its deployment on the Tunisian coast line?

At SINTEF, we were delighted that our project proposal has received the UN DESA Energy Grant for 2016. Immediately, after receiving the grant, we initiated the planning phase. Together with our partners in Tunisia, we selected a location where the prototype will be implemented. The demonstration case will be a bus-ferry for passenger transportation. Technical design and planning are underway. We are expecting to initiate the construction before the end of this year and to start operating the ferry before the end of 2018.

What major roadblocks have you encountered on the way, and how did you resolve them?

Thanks to the fact we have very efficient cooperation with our partners who are committed to success, we did not have any major roadblocks. Having just started the project, we are, however, expecting a few challenges along the way. We have a comprehensive Quality System that will be utilized in order to overcome the possible roadblocks.

How do you feel the project is contributing to the UN Sustainable Development Goals?

We believe that this project is contributing to SDG7[2], ‘Affordable and Clean Energy’ in at least two ways. Firstly, it demonstrates that electric mobility is economically viable. Electric transportation is currently gaining market share in countries where support mechanisms are implemented. In Norway, nearly 40% of the new cars sales in 2016 are electric. Secondly, we are testing a new business model for public transport operators, that can be applied elsewhere. Instead of relying on the electricity provided by the grid, we are demonstrating that it is possible to become your own green electricity producer. This new business model should encourage competitiveness and new players to enter the electricity market. The latter will be motivated by an operational cost reduction but also, more importantly, a societal contribution by combating climate change. The end result will be the availability of cleaner and more affordable electricity.

What key things do you feel need to be done to meet targets for SDG7 by 2030?

In my opinion implementation of SDG7 is hindered by multiple challenges at a technical, legal, financial and public awareness, to name a few.

Whilst a focus on renewable energies has resulted in significant progress in the last decade, a lot still needs to be done. Competitive energy storage technologies are still needed for further development. The intermittent nature of renewable energy sources often require new types of business models, and legal frameworks need adaptation as a result.

The legacy infrastructure already built for the fossil fuel era is established and on an unprecedented scale. The key question now is — how do we finance the transition to a new era of clean and renewable energies?

 

"The key question now is — how do we finance the transition to a new era of clean and renewable energies?"

 

A decentralised electricity system, whereby individuals generate their own renewable energy and any additional power can be transferred to a national grid will have a central role. A key question is how to motivate individuals in society to adopt this approach. Action is needed to increase public awareness about the urgency to act and develop a low carbon emission society. We need to emphasise that climate change is not a problem for one country or region, it impacts everyone globally, and disproportionally the poorest societies. We need international solidarity on this front. I believe the biggest achievement so far in this respect has been the Paris Climate Agreement.

What has been the most rewarding part of the project?

Receiving the 2016 UN-DESA Energy Grant Award made our research group very proud and it also gave us an additional sense of responsibility. My SINTEF colleagues and our project partners will fully utilise this opportunity to succeed in attaining the project objectives and to initiate similar initiatives at the European level and beyond.

The most rewarding moment is yet to come. It will be when the demonstration case is up and running. If we will see that others get inspired from our work, we will definitely be celebrating!

What are your aspirations for the future of the solar fuelled maritime mobility project?

Electricity and transportation accounts for more than half of the world's climate-changing gas emissions, and in my opinion, deserves the world’s utmost attention. Sustainable transport requires new technologies for cars, buses, ferries, trains, planes, fuel infrastructure and energy storage. SINTEF is committed to contribute in the development of these new technologies. Working in research is also by its nature explorative. It is most exciting when you lead in achieving something new!

While there are some political clouds on the horizon, our day-to-day experience in SINTEF is that the Paris Agreement, curiously combined with the strong wave of interest in digital technology, has given a new push for disruptive, new thinking around resource use, energy efficiency and climate change.

Hopefully, our project will be setting an example, inspiring a development that will make a meaningful contribution to combatting climate change, and using ships to make transportation efficient, safe and affordable to the billions of people living in coastal areas around the globe.

We think the ships will gradually be powered by electricity, and be designed for autonomous operations - not needing crew - thereby reducing operational costs and enabling much more energy efficient ship design and the use of ships in sustainable, small and large scale transportation.

Looking beyond our project, I think we will face a drastic transformation in how we consume energy in the future. For a long period of time, we’ve been relying on a centralized electricity system where power plants are generally large with production capacity in the hundreds of megawatts (MW). We are observing a transition to a new decentralized model, whereby a large number of small production units will co-exist together with larger ones. The customer could be a consumer and a producer. I think solar roof panels will gain in market share, with private industry and commercial customers becoming electricity production companies effectively. Cheaper batteries will also make off-grid systems economically viable. All this transformation will create new challenges that need to be addressed. I think we’ll see the fast digitalization of the electricity sector. The Internet of Things, sensor technologies, Big Data and Artificial Intelligence are playing a central role on shaping the new energy market. These enabling technologies will require authorities to adapt to new type of business models and set new rules of governance.’

What are the challenges associated with implementing greener transport?

  • Even electric cars are not particularly green, if the electricity comes from burning fossil fuels.
  • Energy storage from renewable sources remains a challenge.
  • Legacy infrastructure from the fossil fuel age needs to shift to a decentralised model.

 

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References

  1. UN Sustainable Development Goals: 17 goals to transform our world: http://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/sustainable-development-goals/
  2. UN Sustainable Development Goal 7 ‘Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all.': https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/sdg7

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