Green on the water—an update

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When his low-footprint catamaran (described in ReNew 120) was finally ready, Geoff Chia was unable to move aboard due to shore-based commitments. Instead, he asked Stef Palmer to boatsit for a few months. She gives us a ‘liveaboard’ report.

We are facing a mounting number of global challenges: resource depletion (especially petroleum), climate change, ecosystem damage and over-population. These problems are largely attributable to our over-consumption and wasteful habits. By some reckonings we would require the resources of between four and eight planet Earths if developing countries were to reach our current rate of over-consumption. Such an outcome is clearly impossible. As a result, enforced energy descent looms before us as an increasing threat to the world economy and to world peace.
The concept of voluntary contraction and convergence has been mooted as an equitable means of distributing Earth’s increasingly scarce resources. But how do we convince the rich world to make do with less? One way is to demonstrate the viability of pursuing a low-footprint lifestyle without compromising quality of life.
I embarked on the adventure of living aboard Geoff Chia’s Mahe 36 to help test and refine the boat’s systems for sustainable living. The past few months have been a crash course in sustainable technology and the logistics of living aboard. It’s been eye-opening and exciting for me, and I share my observations and experiences in the hope that these may inspire others to strive for a comfortable low-consumption lifestyle, whether on land or water.

Generating, storing and inverting sufficient power proved to be the most significant challenge to demonstrating the possibility of a low-carbon, high-amenity lifestyle on the boat. The objective was to power a full suite of mod cons using the boat’s solar array. We managed to power all DC systems (e.g. the water pump, ultra-efficient fridge, low-current LED lighting) primarily on solar power. However, powering the washing machine, rechargeable vacuum cleaner and Mac laptop proved trickier. They require AC input and thus require the use of the high-power inverter and so draw significantly from the batteries.
There were a number of situations where I had to run the diesel engines to keep the batteries sufficiently charged. A few consecutive cloudy days and the slightest glitch, such as leaving on the inverter, a water tap (and hence pump) running continuously (a beginner’s mistake never to be repeated) or even falling asleep with a few LED lights on, and the batteries were soon depleted.
We used a DC to DC converter (eg 12 V to 9 V) or a low power inverter (150 W) rather than the built in 800 watt inverter where possible (depending on the electronic device in use) and thus reduced energy losses. I became rather strategic about timing my use of energy; I also switched from my colossal MacBook to a small notebook computer with much lower energy needs (but still with full multimedia functionality including digital HDTV).
Spacing out laundry loads and charging appliances while ample direct sunlight was available were simple yet effective measures that helped reduce usage of the batteries. It became possible to go for weeks without needing supplementary charging, so long as the days were sunny. Additional solar power and storage is still on the drawing board, to ensure sufficient energy is available without the need to run the engine after a couple of cloudy days.

Read the full article in ReNew 121