Is Solar Powered Travel The Next Big Thing?

Jürgen Lison, Flickr

Using energy from renewable resources is always a good thing. But while adding solar panels to your own home might be an option, renewable energy is harder to depend on while you’re traveling. If we want to explore out of our immediate areas, we’re still stuck in a world of airplanes, cruise ships and cars after all. That might be changing.

While we probably won’t be seated on a solar powered plane across the Atlantic anytime soon, solar power is being put to use in creative ways that could have big meaning for the travel industry. And not just in high tech backpacks.

This summer, 55-year-old Bertrand Picard has spent much of his time flying in his solar-powered HB-SIA, a prototype plane with the same wingspan as an Airbus A340. Created in Switzerland, Picard’s Solar Impulse Project came to the United States in recent months, crossing from San Francisco to New York City in five stages. The goal is for a world circumnavigation with the next generation of the plane in 2015.

Picard’s not the only one.Earlier this spring, Li Linxiang and his wife Zhao Yafan, a retired Chinese couple, set off to travel around the world on their own solar powered electric tricycle. They plan to make it through China, Kazakhstan and the Middle East before wintering in Ethiopia, and then enter Europe in spring 2014. Covering the entire globe? That will take them about five years.

And while these examples may seem a little off the wall, solar power is nowadays becoming accessible to hotel guests around the world. From China to Maine to Australia, hotels are opting to power their operations with the help of the sun, and designers are working hard to come up with new ideas of how to put solar power to good use, in the hopes of greening the travel industry. Beyond hotels, there are plenty other examples of solar power and tourism coming together. This summer, New York City installed solar powered charging stations for cellphones and if you choose the right cruise line, you can even end up on a ship employing solar technology, like Celebrity Cruise’s Solstice.

So while your next non-stop flight to Europe might not be fueled by the sun, keep an eye out for emerging technologies, and watch as hopefully more businesses in the travel industry put solar power to good use.

Ecoventura vows to eliminate fossil fuels

Environmental tour company Ecoventura has promised to stop using fossil fuels on its vessels by 2015. Ecoventura runs environmentally conscious boat tours to the Galapagos Islands, a unique ecosystem that is under threat by climate change and tourism.

“The Galapagos Islands rank right up there with the Amazon and the Serengeti as one of the richest and best known, yet fragile and threatened, ecosystems in the world. Now, the Ecuadoran government is looking to a range of alternative energy resources to make sure it stays that way,” reports Triple Pundit, a leading website on responsible business practices.

“The Ecuadoran government has turned to wind and solar power as a means of realizing its goals. Along with a range of international aid organizations and private sector businesses, it’s working to eliminate the use of fossil fuels on the Galapagos Islands by 2015.”

One of Ecoventura’s four yachts, the M/Y ERIC, is equipped with solar panels and wind turbines to replace some of its diesel consumption. The company hopes to have these on all its yachts by 2011.

In addition to reducing fossil fuels, Ecoventura donates to carbon-offsetting programs, prompting NativeEnergy to award it with a “Cool Business Certificate” last month. NativeEnergy hosts numerous projects aimed at reducing carbon emissions; the one Ecoventura supports is the Cascade Sierra Solutions Trucking Project, which works to make trucks more fuel-efficient and therefore reduce their carbon emissions.

Ecoventura estimates they have offset slightly more than 4,000 tons of CO2 emissions this year, and hopes to offset more with its renewable energy plan for its boats.


Band on the Run: Soaking in Solarfest in Vermont

There’s not a lot of places more chilled out and easygoing than a festival in Vermont on a beautiful July weekend that runs on solar power and promotes alternative energy and environmental solutions. It’s called Solarfest: The New England Renewable Energy Festival. Going there makes me want to just sprawl on the grass and watch the clouds overhead while simultaneously saving the world.

It can be done! Resting fuels the fight, I feel. And celebrating further fans the flames. Clouds keep us just as informed as anything… and watching clouds clears my head — funny how cloudiness offer clarity — which is just the state of mind needed to tackle the next step in any process. But maybe it’s the sunshine around the clouds that really soaks in and helps us lighten up for a while? (Okay, I’ll stop this metaphoric meandering now and just tell you about the festival!)

Besides the chance to consider our part in the movement for change that is upon us, the music at this festival is always a bonus. This is our third time performing here over the years and it’s always inspiring to take in the rest of the acts. Whoever chooses them has some eclectic and interesting musical taste, for sure, (Break of Reality were amazing!) and I’m thrilled that we’ve been among the artists to provide the score for this event – an occasion I support, wholeheartedly.

Solarfest takes place on a farm in a small town called Tinmouth, Vermont, just a couple hours south of Burlington. It’s in its thirteenth year, I was told, and it’s still very casual, very alive, very non-corporate and staying that way. Someone commented to me later that they were shocked that it was still so (relatively) small after thirteen years — I think there are a just a few thousand attendees over the weekend, if that — and I responded that I thought it was perfect this way.

And I do.

Why should festivals aspire to exponential growth? Yes, it’s good to grow in terms of widespread knowledge; we want people to know about solar energy, alternative fuels, how to make soap by hand without the nasty chemicals, etc. But, this notion that growing in a linear fashion until you’re so big that you need to move locations, hire outside security companies, solicit corporate sponsors and hang plastic banners all over the stage is just, well, counter-intuitive. It’s good to know that people want to come to events like this one, but so too is the natural turnover of people so that new faces replace old ones and that the festival is fresh but still manageable in terms of size.

Sustainable. That’s the ultimate goal. Success. Locally.

Musicians aspire to this kind of linear growth too, imaging that if they sell five hundred copies of their CD one year that the following year they ought to sell at least five hundred and one copies. There is a lot of cultural support for the notion of “more” growth as if it equals “better” when we all know that these two ideas are not often linked – at least, not anymore.

Festivals like this one promotes the notion of a natural cycle of things: the ebbs and flows, mountains and valleys, moments of prosperity followed by wondering where the next dollar will come from. Ultimately, this creates a balance which brings us sustainability. Something living and breathing. Organic and alive. Not just a bar graph rising towards the sky and never looking down on the grounded state from which is began.

For my garden at my house, I never ask it to grow bigger and bigger with every year. In fact, I want it to reach a sustainable and healthy growth level and then remain. I will tend it and it will yield. The next year, I will do the same. All told, the house will be fed by this garden and the garden will never take over the house.

That’s sustainability.

In this same way, Solarfest is a sustainable festival that is not being taken over by its own growth. It has been at its current location for the past few years and it’s nestled sweetly on a farm with hills that roll upwards on the perfect angle from the barn, half of which is transformed into a stage and backstage area. This hill creates a natural amphitheatre and holds the colourful blankets and chairs of hundreds of chilled out people angling smiles towards the lights.

Backstage, the barn swallows swoop overhead and come in and out through the open upper windows of the barn. As the evening rolls in, the stage lights cast an eerie glow on the interior of the barn and the jerky movement of those swallow wings create a natural strobe effect, flickering the lights and casting trippy shadows. You can see the hay stacked high on the far side where performer’s gear is piled; amps upon amps separated by similarly shaped and sized squares of hay just beyond the tarp.

I love it. I smiled at it all and took it all in.

Just before our performance on the Saturday early evening, I took a walk around the grounds. As in previous years, I was moved by the displays and vendors. There were innovative greenhouse designers, book vendors for little known or hard-to-find publications, vegan and non-GMO food suppliers, hemp clothing vendors, kid’s craft areas, etc.

Everyone was smiling. Kids were running around freely and safely. Sunhats were bobbing on the heads of older women walking gently through the grass holding their skirts above their ankles. Men with babies strapped to their chests. Lots of bare feet and beads.

I stopped for awhile and listened to Bill McKibben speak. He was on stage just before us with just himself and a microphone. He is a published author (many times over) and his most recent book is called Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future. He spoke about the economy of things like support, kindness, belief. He was natural and articulate and he made the audience both laugh and think without sounding pedantic or heavy.

Before the end of his talk, I went backstage again to make sure my equipment was all ready and that we were together as a band. I was cradling my guitar and warming up when the audience cheered for his words and the MC took back the microphone to signal a break between sets.

When Bill walked off the stage and through the backstage area, he smiled down at his feet and just sauntered off. It was self-effacing without being under confident. Is that possible? Perhaps I just saw raw humility. It made me stop for a moment and just stare off and wonder. It made me want to read his books.

I didn’t see him again for the rest of the festival, but I imagine he was there somewhere. At least, his words were.

They have staying power.

As does this festival.