Boaters are embracing solar panels and wind turbines for clean and convenient power

By Paul M. J. Suchecki

There is no longer a need for boaters to run an engine or a noisy external generator while at anchor simply to charge a battery. Solar panels or wind turbines can effectively keep marine radios, radar and lights functional. Since there are pros and cons to each, more boaters are incorporating both of them onto their vessels.

The cost of solar panels continues to drop. With no moving parts, they typically last 25 years or more. It’s important to keep the panels clean, out of shadows and as perpendicular to incoming solar rays as possible, so one of the most popular places to mount them is on a Bimini canvas top.

Unlike solar radiation, winds persist after dark in good or bad weather. A turbine system is the opposite of a fan. Blades are attached to an electric generator, a transducer that converts the wind’s energy to electricity. An anemometer monitors wind speed and tells a controller when to turn the unit on or off. Your turbine should automatically orient itself to the wind and have a brake to stop the blades from spinning during an emergency.

Both wind turbines and solar panels generate direct current, so the simplest way to install either would be to hook them up to your marine battery the same way you’d use your charger to tap power onshore.

It’s a good idea to install an inline charge controller, which protects your batteries from being over or undercharged and ensures maximum battery life. Digital charge controllers include an LED display that monitors your entire power system.

Most marine devices are powered by 12-volt direct current, but some appliances, such as refrigerators, run on AC power that requires an inverter. It’s worth investing in an inverter that generates a pure sine wave that mimics shore power. Cheaper inverters could cause motors to run hot and consume up to a third more energy.

If you need an inverter, it makes sense to get one that also incorporates an AC battery charger to use when you’re hooked up to shore power. The combination device will save precious onboard space.

Many wind generators can get noisy during winds of 30 knots or more. Better wind turbine systems slow the blade rotation when the generator reaches maximum power output, producing less noise.

To decide whether a wind generator or solar panel system would work for you, start by estimating how many watts you plan to use. The power required for a marine radio will be far less than for a wide-screen TV with a DVD player. The less power you use, the smaller the system you’ll need. Assess where you can cut power consumption, such as swapping your incandescent lights with LEDs.

When mounting your turbine, be sure to put it in a relatively inaccessible location, such as high on the stern of the boat far from the normal reach of crew members. Be sure that all of the components that you choose are designed to resist the corrosive effects of salt air and sea.

Finally, let’s deal with the most environmentally friendly choice you can make as a boater. While working on a video with actor/environmentalist Ed Begley Jr., I jokingly told him that I had a hybrid boat. He said he’d never heard of one before.

I explained that, as a sailor, I use my gas-fueled motor only to get out of the marina, and after that I rely on wind power. I’ve spent a weekend sailing to Catalina for less than $7 in gas. By contrast, some power boaters spend hundreds of dollars for fuel to make the same trip.

Now that you’ve opted for a sailboat outfitted with a turbine and solar panel, think of how peaceful it will be to drop anchor in Emerald Bay and drink in the blissful stillness with only the light whir of blades, instead of the unrelenting chug of a gas-powered engine or generator. And by cutting your greenhouse gas emissions, you’ll also be helping to preserve the marine environment for all of us.

Paul M.J. Suchecki is a member of Fairwind Yacht Club and Single Mariners.