NEWPORT — The first autonomous floating microgrid dock that uses solar power to recharge electric-propulsion boats is operating in Newport Harbor. Boaters also can use the microgrid instead of boat generators.
“It’s the first in the world,” said Anthony Baro, managing partner of Power Docks LLC, which developed the microgrid dock and was co-founded by Baro and Chris Fagan, the other managing partner.
The platform is a square dock with solar panels in the center and a deck for walking around the perimeter. The platform is tied to a city mooring just east of Goat Island, south of the causeway, and up to two boats can dock at it and recharge their batteries, said city Harbor Master Tim Mills. Many boats use batteries to power communication and refrigeration systems, for example.
Boats often have a gas- or diesel-powered generator on board to run the boat’s electrical system and equipment. The generators are noisy, costly to operate and add carbon dioxide and other pollutants to the atmosphere.
When the boats are tied into the new solar-powered microgrid, those disadvantages disappear.
Worldwide about 23 percent of boats run on electric propulsion, but that number is expanding annually, Baro said. The percentage of electrically powered boats in the U.S. is much less than that, about 5 percent according to data from last year, but that number is growing as well.
The way electric cars such as those produced by Tesla and other car manufacturers slowly are replacing gas- and diesel-powered vehicles, the same trend is taking place with boats, he said. Companies such as Elko in the U.S. and Ocean Volt and Torqueedo in Europe are manufacturing the electric boats, he said.
“With electric, there are lower operating costs, fewer expenditures for maintenance, no changing of oil and filters, and less liability with no fuel spills,” Baro said. “There is no noise, clean water and less carbon going into the atmosphere.”
Power Docks officially launched its Blue Isles platform in the harbor last Thursday, but it had not yet hosted its first boat for recharging services as of Wednesday morning, Mills said. The microgrid dock was at Parascondolo’s Wharf for a while previously so it could be tested, he said.
There is a smartphone app for boaters that monitors how much electricity is being used and can activate the recharging or turn it off, Mills said. The app shows the temperature of the batteries and is tied into security cameras on the platform which show the video images on the phones, Baro said.
“We are currently working to install WiFi on the platform to offer free Wi-Fi to all boaters within 300 feet of the platform,” Baro said. “It is another convenience that will draw boaters to Newport.”
Baro, of Bristol, and Fagan, of Newport, run their own businesses in addition to partnering on Power Docks, which they formed to encourage the boating community, marinas, defense contractors and the military to switch from fossil fuels to renewable-energy resources.
Baro is the owner of E2SOL LLC (Efficient Energy Solutions) of Providence, which works on innovating renewable-energy technologies, developing sustainable project solutions and offering products designed to generate, store and distribute renewable energy.
Fagan is the owner of Fagan Design Build Studio in Newport, which provides architectural design and construction management services for residential and commercial clients.
The new Power Docks company has two offices, one at the UMass Dartmouth Center for Innovation & Entrepreneurship in Fall River, Massachusetts, and a smaller space in Newport.
“We are looking to expand our Newport footprint,” Baro said. “We envision more microgrids in Newport Harbor and around the state.”
Power Docks has products in development that extend beyond the microgrid it just introduced.
The company has built and designed a pilot platform that will be showcased at the Annual Naval Technology Exercise at the Naval Undersea Warfare Center in August.
The platform has the ability to recharge autonomous undersea vehicles as well as aerial drones, all operated from a remote location, Baro said. The platform could be deployed in a hostile environment without putting lives at risk, he said.
These platforms could be anchored, tied to a mooring or could have their own propulsion electric motors to stay in place, he said.
“We have partnered with a lot of companies, many in Rhode Island, to develop these platforms,” Baro said.
Many institutions besides the military use autonomous undersea vehicles for mapping the ocean floor and gathering marine data, he said. However, these undersea vehicles currently must be recharged at a manned vessel above the surface of the water.
“The Blue Isles platform would save the expenditure of a manned ship, since the recharging could all be done remotely and wirelessly,” Baro said. The underwater vehicle would tie into a port on the platform for recharging.
The company also hopes to integrate its photovoltaic power platform into aquaculture farming operations, whether it be energy storage systems, battery charging, power distribution or water-reatment technologies. The company’s entrepreneurs believe its technologies would allow aquaculture farms to operate longer cycle times and increase operational production capability.
There are more than 11,000 marinas in the U.S. and the average occupancy rate is 85 percent, Baro said.
“It is even less in the Northeast because of the winters,” he said.
The company sees these marinas as another possible market and now has floating, energy-sustainable living quarters under development that could be placed at the marinas.
“We want to expand our manufacturing for products like these in Rhode Island,” Baro said. “The state has a strong heritage in boatbuilding.”
--Story written by Sean Flynn, published by Newport Daily News.