planetsolar solar boat A\J Photo © 2011 Philip Plisson

A solar-powered boat – the largest ever built – made berth in Halifax, NS, last week. Fitted with 93.5 kilowatts of solar PV power, the German-built catamaran looks like something a Bond villain would gleefully cruise around in at its top speed of five knots.

For that matter, few but well-financed movie villains could afford the $12 million it cost to build and equip the vessel for a trip up the Atlantic seaboard from Miami.

I love fancy renewable energy toys as much as the next guy. I would happily park an electric sports car in my garage. But in this economy who among us can afford a regular old 31-metre catamaran, let alone a multi-million dollar solar version. Not that the MS Turanor is for sale, but that boat is monumentally cool.

Unfortunately, it’s also no use to anyone. The stated aim of the Turanor project is to demonstrate “her practical applications,” conduct a waste-collection campaign and generally act as a floating ambassador for solar energy, in much the same way that a cow is an ambassador for the hamburger: any affordable form of the product is going to require a massive amount of processing from its pure state. This is true of all innovations. Prototypes are easy; affordable and effective technologies take enormous amounts of time and energy to produce.

The more insidious danger with these kinds of projects is that renewable energy is putting itself out of touch with the general public, who may as well aspire to own the moon as a solar-powered catamaran.

Climate change isn’t a technological problem, it’s a political problem. And if you don’t think being out of touch is a massive political red-flag, go visit John Kerry sometime. So the fact that the Turanor doesn’t resonate with the public is actually something of a problem for an industry still entirely vulnerable to the ebb and flow of its image.

This disconnect is not inherent to renewables. Small, affordable forms of renewable energy (potentially provided through renewable energy co-ops) are types of energy that everyone can see and touch while benefiting from the economic gains. One can own a windmill or a rooftop solar panel and a city full of people owning these technologies can make a massive difference.

Pascal Goulpie is the Managing Director and Co-Founder of PlanetSolar, the organization behind the solar boat project. While excited about the success of the MS Turanor, which already has a round-the-world voyage under its belt, he has also pessimistically stated, “the world is not ready yet for spreading solar energy.”

On a week where Australia’s King Island combined 2.45 megawatts of renewables to form the world’s largest renewable-powered grid, there’s good reason to believe that the world really is entering a place where it’s ready for solar power. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine any political, technological or economic reason why this could not be true, although much still hangs in the balance of public opinion.

The world may not, however, be ready for the assembly-line production of solar catamarans. I suspect this is what Mr. Goulpie means by “the world is not ready yet,” and I’m not sure we can blame it.

Solar energy needs to show that it has moved beyond the realm of science fiction and into a world where nobody bats an eye at a solar-powered community. Because if Mr. Goulpie spends enough time showing off his astonishing boat, claiming all the while that the world isn’t ready for solar energy, the world might just believe him. And that would be a damn shame.

Stu Campana is an international environmental consultant, with expertise in water, energy and waste management. He is the Water Team Leader with Ecology Ottawa, has a master’s in Environment and Resource Management and writes the A\J Renewable Energy blog. Follow him on Twitter: @StuCampana.

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