In 2006 a new solar-powered boat entered the waters of the Serpentine, a twenty-eight-acre recreational lake in Hyde Park, London, and immediately sparked a media frenzy.

Created by SolarLab Research and Design, a London-based sustainable design consultancy, this SolarShuttle was a real showcase for the future of solar transport. 

Travelling silently and pollution-free at five miles per hour (eight kilometres per hour), this eye-catching boat with its solar-panelled roof could ferry up to forty passengers from one shore to the other using an electric engine powered entirely by the sun.

All the fuss made in the press was around the fact that Christoph Behling, SolarLab’s founder, had discovered an accessible and beautifully designed application for solar power.

“At SolarLab we believe that change needs to be inspired not forced. People who use our designs will not only be convinced but will be seduced that a green future will be more, not less, exciting,” he says.

As well as all the attention that was lavished on it by the press, the SolarShuttle has received a number of innovation, design and sustainability awards. It has also been featured in a number of exhibitions, the most recent being Sustainable Futures at the Design Museum in London, which explored a range of products, concepts and projects that address issues of sustainability in their design.

Additionally, apart from serving its purpose of cruising passengers across the Serpentine, the SolarShuttle has also become a floating classroom. “Engaging children in the urban environment with sustainable issues can be quite difficult because often sustainability is associated with the countryside.

"But by being on the SolarShuttle, they can see it in the environment it’s in and witness for themselves that it doesn’t have any fuel – it’s a clean and sustainable story for them to engage with,” says Behling.

Since the launch of the SolarShuttle, a number of rather interesting new project ideas have been simmering for SolarLab. For instance, SolarLab has been carrying out research into how large solar ferries can be used for public transport on London’s waterways – especially its canals and the River Thames – in the run-up to the London 2012 Olympics.

Behling’s belief is that as the city prepares for the Games in two years time, sustainable and future-facing symbols such as a SolarShuttle will be needed to signal to the world that the UK is environmentally and technologically progressive. This seems like an excellent idea, especially as the Olympic organisers have been boasting that this will be the most sustainable Olympics ever held.

“British Waterways love the idea, especially as the Olympics is all about redeveloping the East of London and particularly showcasing environmental activities,” says Behling.

As the Olympic site in Stratford, East London, is surrounded by canals, SolarLab propose a solar ferry to transport visitors from Canary Wharf to and around the Olympic site.

“The idea is to have a ferry to go up and around to get people there, and after the games it will serve as a shuttle service that will do tours showing the Olympic regeneration project,” says Behling.

However, as he explains, there is a bit of a turf war going on between British Waterways, who own the canal system, and the Olympic Committee, who are in charge of all the transport for the Olympics.

“Although British Waterways is keen to do this, the problem we have at the moment is that the waterways and canals form an island and everything that is on the island is the property of the Olympic agency and it’s tightly managed,” explains Behling.

This is extremely frustrating, especially as having such a sustainable form of transport makes a great deal of sense for the Olympics. “You kind of step back and say ‘what are you doing?’ This is a lovely project and at the end of the day it will be good for the Olympics as it’s a truly environmental project,” says Behling.

Another project, which has been on the drawing board for quite some time, is a Thames SolarShuttle.

“This project, although related, didn’t start with the Olympics in mind. It started basically from the reality that if you look at the satellite image of London and if you wanted to go from west to east, it's an obvious conclusion that there is this massive highway in the middle. It makes you wonder why we are not capitalising on it,” says Behling.

So, SolarLab’s proposal is to create a large ferry for the Thames that will carry up to 250 people travelling twelve to thirteen miles per hour (nineteen to twenty-one kilometres per hour) backwards and forwards from Battersea in West London to Canary Wharf in East London.

Many other cities such as Paris and Hong Kong make use of their rivers to transport commuters and Behling is hoping that their proposals for river shuttles could inspire greater usage of the Thames – especially now in preparation for the increased transport demands of the 2012 Olympics.

However, although historically the Thames was used for goods transportation as well as for passenger vessels, much of the infrastructure such as the docks and piers have fallen into disrepair and some are no longer there.

The only vessels really operating now are privately owned ones and those used for sightseeing tours around Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament.

“The problem is that London at one point lost the infrastructure. As people started using other forms of transport more they closed the docks down and the only piers we now have are focused more on tourist destinations than anything else,” says Behling.

Despite the cost involved in setting up the infrastructure, Behling still argues that it is more cost efficient and sustainable than putting another red diesel bus on London’s streets.

“If we have to talk numbers – the SolarShuttle cost £230,000 to construct and a normal diesel bus for the streets of London is £1.2 million,” he argues.

The SolarShuttle is also made using sustainable materials in the form of stainless steel, wood and glass with no paint needed. “It’s a transport solution that is larger than a bus and doesn’t need any fuel – you make it, you pop it in the water and you don’t have to worry about fuel or maintenance,” says Behling.

Yet, in terms of power, with a ferry of this size they would consider a number of options. The first option is looking at actually making the landings solar.

This is something that SolarLab has been working on with Imperial College London – as soon as the boat connects to the solar landing via a magnet it would start charging. The second option is to have a hybrid power system of solar and biofuel.

However, despite both these options, getting a Thames SolarShuttle actually in the water also means wrangling with the authorities because, while in the water it’s in British Waterways’s realm, as soon as it comes to shore its under the authority of Transport for London.

Behling remains optimistic about the project and the fact that one day we will see a SolarShuttle cruising along the Thames. “The project is going in the right direction – there is no rocket science behind it, it works and it’s been proven to work,” he says. “Things sometimes take time, I’m sure it will happen.”

In the meantime, SolarLab have created a number of smaller solar-powered boats and yachts for private clients that cruise along waterways throughout Europe.

The consultancy has also been researching new proposals for other applications for solar design, particularly in architecture, including a solar-powered mosque in Dubai where the solar panels are integrated into a roof structure and create a rather mesmerising blue effect.

For a client in Dubai they have also been looking at ‘turning houses’. “These structures float and slowly turn, chasing the sun perfectly and so getting maximum power,” says Behling. Although the original project has been halted, SolarLab is now researching the opportunity to use this idea to create the first wholly sustainable school in the UK, as well as private housing developments.

It’s obvious that Behling is a busy man because as well as SolarLab he also runs Christoph Behling Design, a design studio he founded in 2004 that designs products for worldwide brands including Nokia, Tag Hauer, Versace and Lacoste. “We do a mix here,” he says.

“We do solar but we also work with brands on development projects and one brand in particular that we work very closely with is Tag Heuer.”

Consistent with his fascination with energy, Behling recently created the new Pendulum Concept Watch for the Swiss brand to mark its 150th anniversary. “This watch uses a new, more energy-efficient pendulum,” explains Behling. Extremely sustainable, the watch has been designed to use a minimum of energy, it’s locally produced and will work for many years to come.

“I love working for Tag Heuer and for me it’s not a conflict at all,” says Behling of the apparent contradiction of, on the one hand, working with renewable energy and being dedicated to sustainable design, while also creating what would perhaps be termed by some as unsustainable products for major brands.

“If you look at the encapsulated energy, the lifespan of the product, the ease of repairing it, the value that is inherent in the product and the fact that the longer it keeps its value the better it is, it is one of the most sustainable products around,” says Behling.

So, for Behling, when it comes to any form of design, the answer is simple: “We need to be smart and design products which use the minimum to create the maximum value for as long as possible.”  

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