For the last three years, a ferry boat named Aditya has been quietly ferrying passengers across the mighty Vembanad lake, from Thavanakadavu to Vaikom town and back. Every day, it makes 22 such trips with 75 people on board. While there are more than 100 water ferries in Kerala, Aditya represents one of the first instances of solar power being used for public transport in India.
The ferry, operated by the Kerala State Water Transport Department (KSWTD), made headlines recently when it won the prestigious Gustave Trouve Award, after being adjudged the world’s best electric boat in the category of ferries designed for paid passenger services.
That was a proud moment for Sandith Thandasherry, founder CEO, NavAlt Solar and Electric Boats, who had to fight against odds to realise his dream of building a solar- powered boat which was economically viable. After convincing the conservative bureaucracy in the state of the advantages of a solar ferry, his start-up helped the officials frame rules for such transport, since the rule books were written keeping diesel-powered boats in mind.
Says Thandasherry, “We had to start from scratch as it was the first attempt in India to build a public ferry that ran on solar power. There were small solar boats in use for which financial viability was not a factor. Since powering a steel boat with an electric motor was not feasible, we had to design a lighter boat which could be powered by a battery”.
NavAlt built the 20-m-long boat with photovoltaic panels on its roof at a cost of Rs 2 crore. It runs on 70 kilowatts of electricity, of which 65 kilowatts is supplied by the boat’s solar panels and the rest by the grid. Significantly, running the boat costs only about Rs 180 a day. An impact study by KSWTD has revealed that the ferry generates close to zero emissions and is at least thirty times cheaper to operate than its diesel counterparts. It has saved more than 100,000 litres of diesel and avoided 280 tonnes of CO2 emissions in its operational life, ferrying close to 10 lakh passengers. The report said the KSWTD could realise a return on its investment in five years.
Enthused by Aditya’s performance, the Kerala government has placed an order for five more solar boats, including a double-decker air-conditioned boat. The government wants to operate such ferries in the tourism sector in due course.
Thandasherry says the potential of such boats is huge in states like Kerala and West Bengal where transport through inland waterways is common. At a pan-India level too, the Union government is seeking to increase the share of inland waterways in the country’s modal mix. “We offer performance and safety standards comparable to Europe. If we are offered support and tax incentives, we can compete globally,” he holds.