Zero-emission, hydrogen-powered catamaran visits San Francisco's Pier 9

The San Francisco Bay has an unusual visitor in port for the next week.

It's the Energy Observer, a one-of-a-kind vessel that tied up at Pier 9 Thursday evening.

The 100-foot catamaran is zero-emission and hydrogen-powered.

"Someone has to be the tip of the spear on this," said Ted Pollak, a spectator who watched the boat dock. "I'm really excited about what they accomplished."

When the Energy Observer passed under the Golden Gate Bridge, observers might have wondered if it was from a futuristic movie.

Covered with solar panels and boasting two tall wings for wind propulsion, it drew stares from bridge pedestrians.

"It's tapping into that spirit of being one with the environment," said spectator Mark Lee.

The floating research lab is four years into a six-year world tour.

It is powered by solar panels, wind turbines, and hydrogen it generates with seawater.

Last month, Long Beach was its first U.S. stop last.

At every destination, the crew meets with business leaders, policymakers, educators, and mariners to promote zero-emission technology.

"What we want to prove and showcase, it's time to shift," said Managing Director Louis Noel Vivies.

"It's time to go to the electric, the hydrogen, the solar energy because there's no need to wait for it."

Toyota is a backer, and Vivies says people in the shipping industry are interested because they see the potential for moving cargo in a cleaner and cheaper way. 

"I mean if they could replicate it and scale it up to larger ships, that would be great," said spectator Scott Wilkinson.

That would be a huge transition from the heavy petroleum most tankers run on.

"Engineers would have to learn electric, its connectors and touch-screens, quite different," said Vivies.  

But the EO team says its at-sea experiments show how workable their renewable energy is.

They will be developing hydrogen generators for the Paris Olympics in 2024 to power concerts and large outdoor events.

"We think hydrogen power is very safe, our crew sleeps right next to it, and we have sailed 35,000 miles with absolutely no incident," said Vivies.

As for living aboard?

"We have no noise, no vibrations, no odors," said Vivies, describing a serene life at sea.

"You produce your own freshwater, you produce your own energy, so you go where you want, and the silence is incredible."

The vessel's stops usually include an educational exhibit at each port, but Covid precautions have ruled that out.  

But the public can view the Energy Observer through May 13th at Pier 9 adjacent to the Exploratorium.

There are no on-board tours though, there's insufficient space for that.     

From San Francisco, the boat heads to Hawaii and then on to the Summer Olympics in Tokyo.