IMAGE: Ricardo Pinto / Team Malizia
Racing to save the Planet
January 6, 2021
Many of us watched in admiration back in 2019 as Greta Thunberg took to the seas in the racing yacht Malizia II, determined that her trip from Plymouth, UK to New York—where she would start a tour of climate conferences—would be carbon neutral. What we probably spent less time admiring was the sophisticated green tech that made this possible: the hydro generators, and top-of-the-range solar panels made by leading PV tech company Solbian, which generated all the power needed for lighting and communication.
IMAGE: Ricardo Pinto / Team Malizia
Powering the Malizia II
Team Malizia are committed not just to racing and carbon-neutral sailing, but also to promoting sustainability, drawing attention to climate change and its impact on the marine environment, and participating in oceanic research. So they naturally turned to Solbian, experts in marine solar installation, to help them in their quest to make their yacht as sustainable as possible. Solbian produces bespoke, highly efficient, durable, and easy to fit solar panels in a range of finishes, colours, and masking layers, and can design installations that fit aesthetically and practically into the context into which they’re placed. This means that while their panels may not be the cheapest on the market, they last longer and can be used in places and situations where cheaper competitors cannot.
Solbian’s challenge on the Malizia II was to produce a lightweight, maximum-efficiency system that could withstand extreme weather and salt water, while ensuring the working deck wasn’t obstructed. The company had previously designed solar installations for a succession of rowing boats, giving them experience in tackling the issue of a double hull. Their track record included solar installations on three competing boats in the 2015 Talisker Whisky Challenge, and on the boat crewed by Nuts Over the Atlantic in 2017. This was a challenging installation where the brief was to cover as much of the Nuts’ boat as possible with PV panels—while not falling foul of the Talisker’s strict conditions about logo visibility and size! Solbian resolved the issue by reproducing the logos on their panels and installed a 578 Wp plant, a result never achieved before on a rowboat.
IMAGE: Solbian / Sailectron
When approaching the install on the racing yacht Malizia II, the company’s experts started with a precise 3D CAD model of the boat to analyse the hull curvatures and deck shapes, defining possible panel installation areas. A shadow analysis, vital when you have sails throwing large shadows, helped them optimise string layouts, bypass diode positions (to bridge shaded areas) and the custom distributed MPPT (Maximum Power Point Tracking) regulating system made by Genasun. Genasun’s system allowed nearly every panel to be regulated individually and used even when part of it was in shade.
IMAGE: Team Malizia
Solbian’s experts knew models don’t always show the details, so they produced full-scale templates of the panels to be placed in their intended positions, allowing them to fine-tune the design. The resulting installation is a 1.149Wp system weighing only 24.5kg (including pre-mounted adhesive). It runs automatically and charges the boat’s 48V Lithium-Ion battery.
IMAGE: Team Malizia
Solbianflex SP Series cells are used on the coach roof, where their non-skid lens structure enables the crew to walk on them and do their deck work safely, while Solbianflex SX series cells are used on the side decks, where a smooth surface is needed to minimise drag. Local manufacturing and material choices made cell production a low-carbon process, and the flexible panels were easily installed by simply removing the protective film on the back and using the pre-mounted adhesive to fix them to the deck surfaces.
However, Solbian aren’t only about custom-made marine solar PV panels for sleek racing yachts. They can scale up their expertise quite extensively.
IMAGE: Marfin Management S.A.M.
Achieving a First: The M/S Paolo Topic
Solbian’s work on the M/S Paolo Topic represented the first solar installation on a bulk carrier ship. Working closely alongside Marfin Management, the dry bulk operator that manages the vessel, Solbian designed a removable structure to ensure the solar panels didn’t hinder loading and unloading operations.
The Covid-19 pandemic has delayed this project, preventing it moving much beyond the prototype stage, but now, plans to restart the installation are in place. Together with TGE S.r.l., (solar installation specialists dealing with the wiring, inverter, and monitoring) and Wärtsilä, who are supplying batteries and the EMS (Energy Management System), Solbian and Marfin are working towards achieving a hybrid power system on the ship next year. All five cargo hold hatches on the 200m-long ship will be fitted with solar panels and a container housing the batteries and EMS will be placed at the front of the deckhouse. This additional power supply system will be connected to the existing electrical generating and distribution system. The EMS will monitor the power flow from the solar panels and the energy storage capacity in the batteries, selecting the optimum times to use the batteries to supplement power from the auxiliary engines or switch off the engines completely, solely using power from the solar panels and batteries. This is expected to result in a 50% reduction in fuel consumption and related emissions from the auxiliary engines.
This isn’t Solbian’s only ‘first’, though. It’s also been involved with the world’s first hydrogen vessel.
IMAGE: Energy Observer Productions
Energy Observer: A Floating Laboratory
Energy Observer, the world’s first hydrogen vessel, is on a journey entitled 'Odyssey for the Future’, which began in 2017. This floating laboratory emits no greenhouse gases or fine particles. It gets its power from a combination of solar, wind, hydrogen and hydroelectric sources and uses two forms of storage: batteries and hydrogen. Energy Observer aims to highlight pioneering ecological solutions and test them in extreme conditions on its journey, and to raise issues surrounding biodiversity, mobility, and circular economy as it visits 50 countries and 101 ports.
During the vessel’s 2018 winter refit, Solbian installed one hundred of their most advanced solar panels: the SP series. These durable mono-crystalline silicon-based modules achieve a record conversion rate of 24% of sunlight into electricity, yet they’re flexible, following the ship's curves. They’re also remarkably lightweight, producing the same 300W as a standard solar panel but weighing just 4kg; in comparison, a standard solar panel usually weighs nearer to 20kg.
"Solbian solar panels are essential to this project. They are light, flexible and rugged allowing us to harvest energy from nature in every weather condition,” explained Hugo Devedeux, Systems Engineer on the Energy Observer.
Moreover Solbian used their ISP (Invisible Solar Power) option to reproduce the main sponsors’ logos on the panel surfaces (white on a blue background). This is done using a masking layer positioned above the cells that improves their aesthetics with minimal impact on their high efficiency.
If you were thinking that Solbian’s systems are only installed on seafaring vessels, though, think again. The Turin-based company’s solar panels are integral to a new kit that converts fossil fuel road vehicles into hybrids that can also use solar power.
LIFE-SAVE is a Solar Aided Vehicle Electrification project financed by LIFE, the EU’s funding programme for its environment and climate action plan. Initially developed by researchers in the University of Salerno’s Industrial Engineering Department, the project is the result of collaboration between Solbian and Landi Renzo Spa, Mecaprom and eProInn. The kit includes two electric motor-wheels on the rear axle; Solbian’s flexible panels, which are mounted on the roof and bonnet to provide solar energy that can recharge the car’s battery; and an electronic interface to connect to the battery and vehicle control systems.
Early tests on a converted VW Polo and a Fiat Punto looked promising, but as with so many green projects, the Covid-19 pandemic has delayed testing and roll out. However, it looks set to be another successful collaboration for Solbian—so it’s not surprising that their panels are in demand for other projects beyond vessels and vehicles.
IMAGE: Innovative Automation S.r.l.
How do you improve on that increasingly widespread green power generator, the wind turbine? You add solar panels and make it into a hybrid power source, of course.
Wind and solar are ideal complementary natural power sources. Wind turbines tend to be more efficient at night and in the winter, whereas solar panels produce all their power during daylight hours and much more productive during the longer, sunnier days of the year.
Solbian’s flexible panels have been added to a horizontal axis mini wind turbine, produced by Portuguese sustainable tech company Omniflow, to create a hybrid power generator. The 3kW wind turbine and the photovoltaic system of 624Wp work together to produce a maximum deliverable power of about 3.6kW in total.
The highly customisable nature of Solbian’s panels made them ideal for this project and the photovoltaic yield was optimised using multiple MPPT (Maximum Power Point Tracking) charge regulators, employing the same technique used on racing sailboats. The system was designed and installed by Innovative Automation S.r.l. The hybrid generator is connected to a 10kWh battery pack, from which the power is then converted to 230V 50Hz alternating current by a Victron Energy inverter.
The hybrid generator is located on top of a hill in Santo Stefano Belbo to supply energy to the extensive Cascina Pizzi vineyard business, which produces Moscato wine. It powers farmhouse utilities that include the air conditioning and humidity control system of the wine storage cellar.
IMAGE: Energy Observer Productions / Antoine Drancey
Freedom Powered by the Sun
Solbian’s motto is ‘Freedom powered by the sun’, and the company’s aim is to guarantee energy independence to all its customers. Since the company was founded by sailor and navigator Giovanni Soldini and physicist Marco Bianucci in 2002, the company has gone from strength to strength. Just the efficiency and durability of Solbian’s panels, by themselves, are enough to justify prices that are at the top end of the market; the panels produce more energy than their competitors and continue to do so long after competing panels have required replacing or seen their energy output dwindle. Add to that the thinness and light weight of their panels, the ease of their installation (both for permanent and removable systems), their adaptability to the most difficult locations, their performance in extreme conditions and the many options available to make them practical and aesthetically pleasing for the context in which they’re fitted, and it’s easy to see why Solbian panels are the first choice for marine solar installations—and, increasingly, installations elsewhere too. Its future looks bright!
You can find out more about what makes Solbian's flexible solar panels the undisputed best on the market by visiting:
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