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Solar-powered boat sets sail on Erie Canal

LOCKPORT – A retired college professor and his wife left Lockport on Tuesday on a 10-day trip meant to show that a completely solar-powered boat can haul cargo across the state.

“Solar Sal,” as the boat was dubbed, is hauling six 1,100-pound bales of recyclable cardboard, picked up at the Cascades recovery plant in Depew. The destination is another of the paper company’s recycling facilities in Mechanicville, about 10 miles north of Albany.

David Borton, who taught solar energy engineering for 33 years at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, adapted a 1906 design to build the boat, which is 39 feet long and almost 11 feet wide.

Even loaded with the tons of cardboard, the craft draws no more than 3 feet of water.

“It’s a very old, efficient design,” Borton said. The boat was assembled from last October through May with help from middle school and high school students in the Schodack school district in Rensselaer County. The middle schoolers helped assemble 44-foot-long cedar strips for the hull, Borton said.

Mounted atop the wooden vessel are 16 solar panels, which can drive the craft at a maximum speed of 7 knots. Cruising speed will be about 5 knots, Borton said.

The panels generate 5,000 kilowatts of electricity to charge two sets of batteries, one of lead and the other of lithium, that run the boat’s engine, enabling it to move as fast as large canal tugboats do today.

“We are proving the point that a vessel powered entirely by alternative fuels can deliver a cargo,” said Pete Bardunias, president and CEO of the Chamber of Southern Saratoga County, which helped sponsor the project.

He compared the humble craft to the Monitor, the U.S. Navy’s first metal-hulled warship, which didn’t look like much but whose brief appearance in the Civil War changed the world, making all wooden naval craft obsolete. “This is our Monitor moment,” Bardunias said.

Borton, 71, and his wife, Harriet, are able to sleep in a berth concealed in the bow of the boat, beneath the controls. Harriet Borton said they tie the boat up at night, since most areas of the canal won’t let them lock through after 5 p.m. this time of year.

They sailed the craft empty from eastern New York to the Niagara River from Sept. 19 to Sunday before turning around and heading back. They tied up at the Canal Corp. yard on Mill Street in Lockport.

Borton’s other sponsors included Cascades, the Canal Corp. and Greenfield Manufacturing of Saratoga Springs, which supplied a special coating that was applied to the boat’s hull.

Borton said he’d like to go into business himself. He said he is hoping to be able to manufacture 10 hulls a year for solar-powered boats.

Bardunias said it may never be economically feasible for Cascades to scrap its fleet of tractor-trailers to haul cardboard, but he could see some practical uses for solar-powered boats. Food transportation, for one.

“Down in New York City, there are people who will pay a premium for locally grown stuff that’s brought down via alternative energy, so there’s actually a market for that,” he said.