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[image] Five years later, solar-powered canal trip yields an assembly plant in Rome
by Charles McChesney Aug 25 2012
[image Gary Walts / The Post-Standard
Montgomery Gisborne and his wife Denise, of Ontario, Canada, roll up the sides of their solar-powered pontoon boat docked at Wright's Landing in Oswego as they prepared to cross the state on the Erie Canal in 2007. During the trip, Gisborne made connections that led him to open a factory in Rome building solar-powered boats
new-loon.JPG Courtesy of the Tamarack Lake Electric Boat Company
Rome, NY -- What might have appeared to be a leisurely cruise along the Erie Canal in 2007 turned out to be something of a site search by Montgomery Gisborne, whose Tamarack Lake Electric Boat Co. has begun assembling solar-powered boats in Rome.
Gisborne and his family traveled the canal system from Oswego to Albany on a boat he put together in his driveway at his home north of Toronto. It was, he said at the time, the first vessel to traverse the canal powered by the sun.
He said it proved to him that the technology worked. More, it convinced him to ask, “Why is everyone chugging along with that blue streak behind them?”
That blue streak, the tell-tale stream of gas and oil that trails behind many boats, doesn’t have to be a part of boating, he decided.
The boat drew attention along the way. The Post-Standard’s John Doherty reported on its progress and popularity.
“There’s a caravan of people following us. It’s like we’re the Rolling Stones on tour,” Gisborne told Doherty.
At different stops, Gisborne said he met people who were enthusiastic about the idea of solar-powered boating and, Gisborne said, “this Canadian Swiss Family Robinson going across the canal.”
Fans included Carmella R. Mantello, then-director of the state Canal Corp. By the time the Gisbornes reached Albany, the corporation was hosting a news conference highlighting the trip, and the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority was involved.
“They asked me, ‘Monte, would you be interested in bringing your project to America?’”
“Of course I would,” Gisborne replied.
Gisborne wasn’t just some man in a boat. He was an experienced electrical tinkerer who had for years built vehicles to compete in the American Tour de Sol, a competition among solar-powered cars.
It was at the Tour de Sol that state energy authority officials met Gisborne, so he wasn’t a stranger to the agency charged with improving the state’s energy efficiency and developing technologies.
“We’re in the business of promoting new tech and clean tech,” said Francis J. Murray Jr., the authority’s president and chief executive officer.
A solar-powered boat fits with the authority’s mission, he said.
“It’s an intriguing application of the technology,” he said.
In fact, Murray said, the authority is involved with another boat project: An Albany-area operation is developing coatings to make boats travel through the water with less resistance, saving fuel.
The authority has pledged as much as $500,000 in aid for Tamarack Lake Electric Boat, Murray said. The money is tied to the company meeting certain milestones, including design work, leasing space and hiring workers.
Tamarack has one model; a second, larger boat under development. The Loon is what workers build in Rome.
The Loon is a 26-footer that can hold 10 passengers. It’s a modern take on the pontoon boat, Gisborne said. Unlike most pontoon boats, it is fiberglass and has a hard roof. The roof holds solar panels that, combined with batteries, can power the boat at about 8 miles an hour for as far as 50 miles, he said.
That’s far longer than the cruises most boaters take to cap a summer day, Gisborne said.
The assembly plant has four workers, but Tamarack is expected to grow to seven workers by the end of the year and 13 by the end of next year, according to Gisborne.
Gisborne said he wanted to build the boats in the United States to be closer to the largest boat markets. His business plan calls for selling about 5 percent of the boats in New York, 35 percent elsewhere in North America and the remaining 60 percent around the world. He expects to sell 100 boats in the first year.
There is interest in the boat in Asia, Europe and the Middle East, he said. A resort area in Egypt is on the cusp of ordering 10 Loons and might be looking to buy more.
The boat was designed from the start to fit in a modern shipping container — those steel boxes used to carry goods by rail, boat and truck in markets around the world. The Loon’s hardtop retracts, Gisborne said, allowing four boats to fit in a single shipping container.
“It’s the first boat manufactured to go in a box,” he said.
At $35,000, the Loon is more expensive than similar-sized, gas-powered pontoon boats, Gisborne concedes. But the boat pays back that difference in a few years because owners won’t have to buy gas, replace spark plugs or get an engine tune-up.
He said he recently was at a launching ramp waiting to put his Loon in the water. Ahead of him, an owner launched his pontoon boat but couldn’t get its engine started. The advantage of a solar-powered electric boat was clear enough that the boat owner who was ahead of Gisborne is considering ordering a Loon, Gisborne said.
Murray called the state’s investment “fairly modest.” He said starting small, as Tamarack is doing, can work. In time, success could bring the state an increase in clean technology, manufacturing and jobs.
“That’s what we’re hoping is going to happen,” he said.
[© 2012 Syracuse Online All rights reserved]
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