PowerDocks hopes to cut fossil-fuel use with marine charging stations
TECH TANDEM: A $29,000 Innovation Voucher was won by Newport-based PowerDocks LLC and Roger Williams University to help build renewable-energy marine charging stations. Charles Thangaraj, RWU assistant professor of engineering, will head research for the project.
Nicknamed the Ocean State, Rhode Island is home to thousands of boaters, various fishing companies, a Naval base and a prodigious port-based economy – all of which rely heavily on fossil fuel-powered machinery and vessels.
The maritime economy can be a large source of water and air pollution in the state, but what if that weren't the case?
Newport-based marine renewable-energy company, PowerDocks LLC, and Roger Williams University have collaborated through a $29,554 Innovation Voucher from R.I. Commerce Corp. to build autonomous renewable-energy charging stations that will be placed at various points in the state's waterways, ocean and marina slips. Similar to land-based energy sources, these will be user-friendly systems that draw on batteries storing renewable, clean energy to power recreational-sized boats as well as harnessing power for various commercial applications.
The hope is to encourage Rhode Island's boating community, maritime companies, defense contractors and the military to switch from fossil fuels to renewable-energy resources, becoming more environmentally-friendly and energy-efficient.
Charles Thangaraj, assistant professor of engineering at Roger Williams University, will head up the research end of the partnership. He said the biggest challenge the project faces is finding a way to interface multiple existing technologies and attaining further funding for a later construction process.
Currently, the project is in the design phase, said Thangaraj, and step one is "identifying the right components and a way to put them together."
Some of the necessary technology, he explained, has been built or designed by PowerDocks, but other parts "are discrete and exist in different domains."
He added: "When you put them together, the real engineering … is how to interface between them. … If you don't have a common language, there's no way communications can be established."
Construction of the floating renewable charging stations will begin after additional revenue channels are secured. Thangaraj explained the cost of each unit will vary depending on the power required and number of boats and people served.
"These things are not cheap. When we want to build something life-sized, we would need more partners, but partners aren't going to give you money unless you show them what you're going to do," he said.
The final goal is to create units of different capacity, but also be able to tailor the technology to companies' specific purposes.
"We want them to be customer- and purpose-built, the principle would be the same, but the size would be larger depending on the demand," he said.
Funding secured by the Innovation Voucher is key in bringing PowerDocks' and Thangaraj's designs to Rhode Island-based companies.
"We may be able to move from talking about things to actually trying to put together a functional and demonstrable system," said Thangaraj, who first became involved after his skills and expertise matched the needs of PowerDocks, who approached RWU for research and design aid.
Thangaraj believes the popularity of renewable energy within Rhode Island's maritime economy depends on how well the populace adopts what he called an "untapped potential."
Support in Rhode Island "at the moment may not be as high as we would like because there are no examples to look at," he said, but added: "Honestly, if you can run a boat without needing to fuel it up, that's pretty impressive."
Maritime renewable-energy technology will initially get a strong footing in European countries such as Denmark, Germany, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, said Anthony Baro, PowerDocks' managing principal and founder, but estimated popularity in Rhode Island will catch up in the next five years, especially through four commercial applications.
Baro said marinas usually operate at 80 percent capacity and if they could repurpose the empty slips in power-generating facilities, they could increase their profitability. Another application of PowerDocks is electrical outlets for aquaculture farms to increase filtration of water and improve the health of fish and other produce grown there.
He also said it would cut down on the cost of following an unmanned marine-propulsion vehicle, used to take oceanographic measurements, which usually requires a vessel to follow and monitor its energy use.
PowerDocks is adding autonomous aerial and underwater vessels to its arsenal, which, Baro explained, is very helpful when patrolling the state's waterways and harbors for homeland-security purposes.
A sailor at heart, Baro said PowerDocks was built from his need to recharge the sailboat he moors in Bristol, but he is trying to get others to see how valuable this technology can be.
"I personally think … people don't fully grasp the impact this can have," he said, especially financially and in terms of job creation.
In addition, increasing the availability of marine-based renewable technology will increase education interest and, he added, "leverage our current professional trade for employment of electricians, ground techs and engineering" to grow the industry. •