For Aditya, the country’s first solar-powered ferry operating in the alluring waters of the Vembanad lagoon in Kerala, Friday marks an important milestone — it completes one year of successful operations without any major glitch. Launched on January 12, 2017, the 75-seater ferry has been a people’s favourite and remains a testament to responsible green transport projects.
Earlier this week, when the Indian Express took a ride in the ferry, it caught up with Ashwini, a student of B.Com who sat by the window in the last row of the solar ferry. She is a regular commuter on the ferry, which does a total of 22 trips between the jetties of Vaikom and Thavanakkadavu on opposite banks of the Vembanad. Commuters traveling to Cherthala, a major town in Alappuzha district from Vaikom take the ferries as they take less than half the time taken by buses. Aditya is one among four ferries on this stretch, the others being conventional diesel boats.
“It doesn’t make so much noise like the others. Also, the water doesn’t get polluted. There should definitely be more boats like these,” said Ashwini, before she went back to checking her question paper.
Unlike the diesel-powered wooden ones, Aditya is much larger in size, resting on two hulls with an open cabin at the front for the sailor. The 1500 sq ft of solar panels on the roof of the boat do most of the job, extracting energy from the sun and converting it into electrical energy to be stored in the battery units. The lithium-ion phosphate batteries, considered expensive but light-weight and long-lasting, are in turn connected to two electric motors which use the energy to propel the boat.
The interiors have a touch of Kerala’s art and culture with pictures of various native dance forms taking up the walls. The ferry was built in three years from scratch in Kerala by NavAlt, a private company specialising in solar ferries and electric boats. The propulsion technology was imported from France, which has good experience with solar ferries.
As the last bunch of passengers settled themselves, Aditya, quietly and gradually, took a reverse from the Vaikom jetty, turned around and began moving towards Thavanakkadavu. As sunlight streamed in through the wide windows and doors of the ferry, the sound speakers, attached to the corners, came alive with Malayalam romantic songs. Except for the hushed conversations of schoolchildren, there’s no noise. Within 15 minutes, the boat had completed its journey, leaving no carbon footprint on the planet.
Passenger comfort, saving up on exorbitant diesel costs and above all, eliminating air, water and noise pollution in a single strike are the benefits a solar ferry offers. Operated by the Kerala State Water Transport Department (KSWTD), the ferry has no maintenance costs and saves the government an astounding 42,000 litres of diesel in a year on a single boat translating to about Rs 22 lakhs. While the diesel boats release thick fumes of dark smoke into the air, there are no carbon dioxide emissions in the case of Aditya. With the Vembanad lagoon identified over the years as a critically vulnerable ecosystem, green technologies are instrumental in stemming the effects of pollution.
“Diesel cost is the biggest factor for us. In a day, we use around 100 litres for a conventional boat. Secondly, there’s no pollution. We are getting good feedback from the passengers,” Anandan, the station-master at the Vaikom jetty.
With dirt-cheap tickets at Rs 4 for a ride across the bank, the jetty at Vaikom is cutting back losses on diesel boats with the revenue it earns from Aditya. Sensing the winds of change, it is also taking remedial measures. There’s a proposal with NavAlt to build a bigger double-deck air-conditioned solar-powered ferry for 100 passengers which will likely be operated on the tourist-circuits of Alappuzha.
“You wouldn’t want to go for a diesel boat when you know you have a much cleaner, greener and efficient model of solar boats on the other hand,” said Sandith Thandassery, founder and CEO of NavAlt.
“According to present standards, there may be a 10-20% difference in costs between solar and diesel boats. But you can easily recover that in 2 years,” he added.