For centuries, the backwaters have been the lifeline of rural communities inhabiting the waterlogged areas in Kerala. The unregulated tourism expansion in the last two decades has deprived them their livelihood by polluting the water they use for cooking, drinking, washing, fishing and farming.
Houseboats and speed boats used for cruise and passenger boats used for ferrying local people and transporting goods have been a major polluter of the backwaters, which is a network of lakes, rivers and canals. Apart from dumping waste into the waters, the boats have also been emitting huge quantities of carbon dioxide and creating noise, posing health hazards to thousands of people depending on the backwaters.
The people are likely to get a big relief from fuel and noise pollution caused by the boats if an experiment by the Kerala State Water Transport Department (KSWTD) to use solar power in place of diesel in its boats succeeds. A 75-seater solar-powered boat being built for the department by NavAlt, a joint venture between French company AltEn and Indian firm, Navgathi is nearing completion at Aroor boat building yard in Alappuzha.
KSWTD director Shaji V Nair said they were planning to deploy the boat, which is the country’s first solar-powered ferry, in the 2.5 km-long Vaikkom-Thavanakkadavu route in Vembanad Lake in Kottayam district by the middle of August. The KSWTD, which is now operating 728 services, will replace its entire fleet of 51 boats with solar-powered boats if the operation is found successful.
“The introduction of solar power in boats will be a breakthrough in the history of water transport in the state. Nearly 45 percent of the expense we incur is for fuel. About Rs 8 crore was spent for fuel last year. Besides the money we save, we will also be contributing to the conservation of environment,” Shaji told the Firstpost.
NavAlt CEO Sandith Thandasherry, a naval architect from the Indian Institute of Technology, Chennai, said replacing conventional boats with solar-powered boats will not be a difficult proposition as the Union Ministry of New and Renewable Energy is providing a subsidy of Rs.1 crore for using natural source of energy.
“The cost for building a conventional 75-seater boat at present is about Rs 1.5 crore. A solar-powered boat will cost Rs.50 lakhs additionally. Besides the subsidy, the fuel cost saved by each boat comes to about Rs 25-30 lakhs a year,” Sandith said.
The solar-powered boats can also claim carbon credit. According to Sandith, a boat uses over 50,000 litres of diesel per year if they are operated for 10 hours a day. One liter of diesel emits 2.47 kg of carbon dioxide. This works out to 140 tonnes of carbon dioxide a year.
One carbon credit is equal to one tonne of carbon dioxide. The KSWTD is yet to work out the benefit accrues from carbon credit. Shaji said they will entrust the task for claiming the carbon credits to the experts.
Sandith said the subsidy and other benefits for using solar power will also be available to private players. Houseboats that dominate the backwaters could be solar-powered if their conventional shape is tweaked to make them lighter and to accommodate the solar panels, he said adding that conversion of existing boats into solar-powered boats is not possible as the former are made with heavy materials like steel and wood. The solar-boats are made with aluminium or fiber.
“The solar powered boat being built for KSWTD is equipped with two electric motors and a 20kWp solar module array that helps charge the lithium battery packs in the boat. The 20 metre long, 7 metre wide boat, with a maximum cruising speed of 7.5 knots, can run continuously for 6 1/2 hours on a normal sunny day,” Sandith said.
The boat that does not release harmful emissions in the air, is silent and comfortable for passengers. It has very low vibrations and does not emit the odour of diesel or petrol. It is also easy to operate the boat as it is fitted with electronic systems.
Navagathi made a foray into solar-powered ferry boats in 2008 by developing a small 10-seater solar powered boat for a private hospitality group. It earned the company a place in the Limca Book of World Records for solar boats with the highest speed. The company later made a 20-seater solar powered boat for a tourism operator at Bhatinda in Punjab.
The breakthrough for Navgathi came in 2013 when the firm joined hands with AltEn, the only firm in the world with expertise and technology to build zero emission large ferry boats. It has already built about 15 such large ferries. Most of them are being operated in France itself.solar power
Sandith, who worked for two years in a shipyard at Bhavnagar, Gujarat after graduation and later for another five years with one of the world’s best ship building yards in South Korea, set up his own designing and boat building firm because of his passion for boats.
The naval architect has tried to make the boats as indigenous as possible by combining the local expertise with AltEn technology. He said that his endeavour was to provide the boating industry with a more efficient and environment friendly alternative to conventional ferries and cruise boats.
Sandith hopes that the launch of the ferry boat in the state may encourage many boat operators to replace the conventional boats with solar-powered boats. NavAlt, which is the only company in India that can build solar ferries with capacity to carry 75 to 180 passengers, can at present build up to 10 solar-powered boats a year.
It can build more boats with the help of conventional boat building yards if there is more demand, which is bound to go up in the country in the coming days with the governments and organizations waking up to the need for clean energy.
Environmentalists in Kerala have been raising concern over the hazards posed by the boats following the proliferation of cruise boats in the wake of a boom in tourism in the late nineties. Alappuzha is the major backwater destination in the state. A total of about 650 houseboats, 310 private motor boats and 33 speed boats are now being operated in Vembanad Lake in the district.
A study conducted by Alappuzha district panchayat reveals that houseboats in the district are "killing" the lake, which is the largest wetland ecosystem in south India, by dumping huge amount of waste into it. The study showed that overcrowding of houseboats has been affecting the livelihood of fishermen in the district with the pollution caused by them destroying the huge fish wealth.
Same is the state of Ashtamudi Lake in Kollam district. Oil spillage from motor boats has been one of the biggest environmental problems faced by Ashtamudi, which is the second largest lake in the state and a Ramsar site.
Environmentalists feel that both the lakes can be saved from further deterioration if the government goes for emission-free boats and adopt scientific methods for checking the discharge of wastes.