Whatever you call it, green, clean, or eco-friendly, the move toward carbon-free sailing has begun to take center stage in the conversation. Putting an ambitious stake in the water, French catamaran builder Fountaine Pajot (FP), which has built 4,000 cats in its 45-year history, has unveiled efforts to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2030.
“We don’t have all the solutions yet so there are still a lot of unknowns in the plan, but this is exciting,” Deputy CEO Romain Motteau said at the U.S. Sailboat Show in Annapolis last fall, where he outlined the multi-pronged industrial plan called Odysséa24. “Part of the aim of this project is to energize innovation.”
FP’s first step was to assess the company’s existing carbon emissions, using 20 years of data and the International Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Protocol for a life cycle analysis. Not unlike other builders, they found that the majority of their carbon footprint comes from how their boats are used, rather than how they are built.
“The conclusion was that 80% of CO2 emissions come from the use of a boat and 20% from its production,” Motteau said. “This was surprising and caused us to change our strategy.”
These statistics led FP to create ODSea Lab, their platform for accelerated innovation toward a carbon-neutral sailing yacht by 2030. The name stands for Observe, Design, and Save, and it’s a testbed for variety of solutions including electric propulsion, extended energy autonomy, and an advanced user management/interface system to provide energy use and status data. To help with the propulsion and storage processes, Fountaine Pajot took a majority stake in La Rochelle’s engineering firm, Alternative Energies, which develops proprietary electric and hybrid propulsion systems. Additional future partnerships will focus on optimizing other systems including advanced electrics.
Armed with partners and a plan, FP outlined a three-point attack to reduce its carbon footprint and those of the boats it builds: construction systems and recycling bio-sourced materials; propulsion systems; and onboard energy autonomy.
The initial environmental impact of a boat includes how it’s built and the materials used in construction. Vacuum infusion has replaced traditional hand lay-up of fiberglass, which has helped keep the process cleaner. Infusion means laying dry fibers into a mold and then pulling resin into the laminate under vacuum via tubing. This process uses less resin, creates less waste overall, and produces fewer styrene emissions as the resin cures. The result is a lighter structure, which requires less fuel to propel. Infusion is groundbreaking but it’s not new, so in addition, FP is experimenting with less toxic resins and linen cloth alternatives that are recyclable, unlike traditional FRP fibers. They’re also exploring new cutting processes (for hatches, for example) that create less material waste, and they’re delving into incorporating more recycled materials throughout construction.
The builder is also assessing the efficiency of its production facilities to reduce its industrial footprint. About half of the energy consumed in construction is used to heat buildings and to transport materials from distant suppliers. Improvement comes in the form of boosting insulation in buildings, minimizing packaging, and sourcing components locally to reduce transportation impact.
There’s also an effort underway to engage carbon offsets. For example, FP is trying to raise awareness of the Posidonia crisis in the Mediterranean. Posidonia, or Neptune grass, is critical to the marine ecosystem and is disappearing in large part due to anchoring activities. This seagrass provides a habitat for 20% of the marine species found in the Med and oxygenates the ocean, helping fight global warming in the process. A third of underwater Posidonia meadows have disappeared in just the last half-century, and FP is helping the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) France raise awareness of the situation and revitalize what is considered to be the “lungs of the Mediterranean.”
“All this represents a large investment in change,” says Motteau. “That’s why we’re looking so far ahead.”
Propulsion and Energy Autonomy
Electric propulsion is what most people think of when boats are called eco-friendly, and a variety of engines and hybrid systems have been developed to create electric-powered sailboats. FP is working on custom engines and lithium batteries with Alternative Energies rather than relying on existing products in the market. The focus is to replace the two propulsion combustion engines on board with electric motors and use a traditional genset for backup only. Electric motors keep noise and vibration to a minimum and eliminate fumes. They need little regular maintenance and virtually no winterization. Best of all, they provide immediate power and torque, so responsiveness is exceptional. Eventually, FP hopes to shed the generator as well.
These complex systems require integration, management, and monitoring to ensure self-sufficiency. FP is investing in various components of this “block” and using less power-hungry systems including smaller air conditioning units. To keep the owner informed, FP has created a custom digital interface that will be intuitive for everyone, including for use in bareboat charter where engines and batteries are workhorses that need constant attention.
Fountaine Pajot certainly isn’t the first to embrace electric motors with a genset backup, but it’s pushing hard to make prototypes a reality, evident in the Aura 51 Smart Electric already on the water. The Aura 51 is a Barret-Racoupeau-designed sailing cat with twin electric motors and a combustion engine generator. In FP’s version, two pods are under each hull, one with a fixed or folding propeller used for propulsion, and one used as a hydrogenerator to recapture some of the energy of movement to produce electricity, which is then stored in small, dedicated batteries.
The Aura 51’s proprietary energy management system ties its massive bank of lithium batteries to the motors, the hydrogenerators under the hulls, and the data screen. Reportedly, the arrangement will drive the boat under full electric power for two hours and at reduced power for up to four hours.
Many exterior horizontal surfaces on the Aura 51 are dedicated to solar energy generation. Between the solar array and the battery bank, the boat can presumably spend a week at anchor without relying on the genset so long as air conditioning is used sparingly. Mass production of the Aura 51 Smart Electric is expected to begin this fall, and 10 similar prototypes in FP’s 40- to 50-foot range will debut next year.
The new construction processes and careful materials selection are also likely to transfer to Dufour Yachts’ facilities, which are owned by Fountaine Pajot as well. Electric propulsion will follow, with the added challenge of finding space for the equipment in monohulls.
Another evolving clean yachting option includes hydrogen fuel cell propulsion. In April, in partnership with EODev, a French developer of hydrogen energy solutions, FP launched a prototype sailing cat called the Samana 59 Smart Electric REXH2. The onboard fuel cell, which is only 35 cubic feet, delivers up to 70 kW of continuous power. The 33 pounds of hydrogen, which are stored in two tanks at 350 bars, will supply close to 250 kWh of electricity for onboard systems or the electric motors.
Between the hydrogen system, the 63 kWh lithium iron phosphate (LiFePO4) battery bank, and 452 square feet of slim solar panels, the boat is capable of 40 hours of autonomy at anchor or motorsailing at 5 knots for 10 hours. Once in port, the crew can replenish hydrogen if needed.
Charter companies Dream Yacht Worldwide and Tradewinds have both signed up as test sites for FP’s carbon-neutral cruising solutions.
“By partnering and supporting the research and development of electric yachts, we can continue to make sailing accessible to people around the world but with a lower impact on our seas and environment,” said Loic Bonnet, CEO and founder of Dream Yacht Group.
Fountaine Pajot’s goal of carbon neutrality by 2030 is ambitious, and even they admit that they may not be able to meet all the requirements in fewer than seven years. That said, they’ve outlined their objectives and launched a serious initiative. As a major player in the sailing industry placing carbon neutrality in the forefront of their production, research and development, and marketing, they’re becoming part of a solution and asking their stakeholders—suppliers, dealers, owners, and media—to join them.
“If we want to continue to enjoy the sea and the environment,” Motteau said, “we have to be courageous and brave to face these challenges.”