On the occasion of top business school IMD’s 2012 Orchestration Winning Performance session, inspirational speakers were invited from 24-27 June 2012 to share their experiences and insight. Of the six conferences I reported for IMD (other links at end), none impressed me more than PlanetSolar.

PlanetSolar circles the globe with only the sun

On May 4, 2012, MS TÛRANDOR PlanetSolar (Switzerland) successfully completed the first world tour of any carrier powered by solar energy alone. At a top autonomous speed of 10 knots (20km) an hour, the 30-meter long catamaran took 19 months and seven days to go around the globe.

On board was Swiss Raphaël Domjan, the young eco-adventurer who eight years before had come up with the PlanetSolar concept. Already an electronics engineer, high mountain guide, rescue specialist, jet and glider pilot and ambulance driver, he launched the idea of a solar powered boat that would go around the world fuelled by the sun alone. He was driven by the belief that our planet deserves a better future.

“I wanted to do my part to protect the planet,” he explained during an OWP insight session, “and I wanted to show that my project was possible with today’s technologies, the kind that anyone can buy, even in a hardware store.”

Domjan put together a team of advisors and influential persons who all said it was a great idea, but it wasn’t until 2008, when he met Immo Stroeher, a pioneer of the German solar energy industry, that the financing was finally secured. The partnership between the German businessman and the Swiss eco-adventurer resulted in the design of the catamaran in New Zealand and its construction in Kiel’s shipyards in Germany, all within a space of two years.

In the end, 60 sponsors came on board, including scientific partners, institutional partners and official suppliers. Asked how he went about convincing them, Domjan answered, “You have to put stars in their eyes.”

On 27 September 2010, before the boat was properly tested or completely finalized, with a team of four men who didn’t even know each other very well, the voyage commenced. For seasonal and climatic reasons, they had to leave before October.

The new software provided by the Yverdon School of Engineering (HEIG) and the French firm ADRENA, guided by the French meteorological service, determined the best routes, taking not only the sun into consideration, but also the general weather, wind, waves and currents.

“We were driving a 90 ton catamaran with the power of a scooter! As you can imagine, we were always trying to catch the sun.” The autonomy without the sun is three days.

The venture was originally meant to take ten months, but the time was almost doubled due to the arrival of the Monsoon that completely transformed the itinerary. In the end, the 60,000 km covered on the sea took PlanetSolar to 28 different countries. The human encounters made along the way were extraordinary, Domjan said.

On the other hand, when crossing the Pacific the team saw no sign of life for an entire month. “The sea was so dark and the Milky Way so bright, we felt like astronauts.”

There were some good surprises, namely the stability of the catamaran in high seas, but some disappointments as well, when optimal conditions did not always produce the expected performance. Ironically, all the high tech equipment worked to perfection, but the water-related facilities (toilets, showers and water pumps) posed a number of problems.

“Our project was just a vision, but now we’ve done it. We’ve proven that the sun can carry us around the globe.”

Domjan admits that the goal was to demonstrate what it is possible to achieve, not necessarily set up a business. MS TÛRANDOR PlanetSolar (the name was inspired by Tolkien) belongs to Immo Stroeher’s company, Immosolar, and will now begin its commercial life. “It’s perfect for tours in the Galapagos,” he said.

In the meantime, Donjam has set up a foundation to contribute to the development of renewable energies and energy efficiency, to organize and support practical applications and eco-explorations, as well as heighten public interest in environmentally friendly technologies. “The media is more responsive to not-for-profit ventures.”

Donjam is convinced that we need to be optimistic. Instead of crossing our arms, saying it’s already too late for the environment, “We need to transform the problems into opportunities.”

Learn more about PlanetSolar


Watch video!

Flying high with Jetman Yves Rossy
Inspiration from above

ExpressingParanoid optimism
The Economist’s John Micklethwait presents at IMD

Shift happens!
Why not make the best of it?

World competitiveness in 2012
IMD Professor Stéphane Garelli suggests domestic demand and re-shoring are keys to reboot economies

Leading with purpose and faith
Anadarko’s James Hackett shares his experience at IMD

Michèle Laird, née Haffner, was an international arts administrator (visual arts and theatre), successively in Paris, New York and London, before moving to Switzerland and becoming an arts journalist.

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