7 Reasons Why Electric Boats Will Be The Best In The World

With Kevin Jenkins

I believed Ratty in the Wind in the Willows when he told Mole that "there is nothing - absolutely nothing - half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats".

My sailing career halted when the 25 footer I was crewing on got run over by a huge Yugoslav fishing fleet mothership at 1.00am in Dunedin harbour. It punched a hole just above the waterline and we bobbed around like a cork in a washing machine, banging up against a multi-story black steel behemoth. Good times. I'm fascinated by coal-fired steamers, but it’s difficult to find somewhere to park. I've been fishing on big "dude ranch" launches where you pay to have everything done for you, and I've been out on my mate Rob Bolton's Rayglass 2150 a few times. 

I also have the world's smallest dinghy to mess about in on the Waikawa Stream, 85km north of Wellington. Its 2.1m long, bright yellow and I can go upstream for a few km happily. Unless it's windy, or the current is running against me. That's why I've got close a few times to picking up an outboard. Waikawa Beach is an idyllic spot: beach, dunes, river, forest, and lots of birds, including beautiful herons. The outboard would have to be electric to not disturb the peace, but I've been hesitant because throwing a car battery into the dinghy would probably sink it.

Electric cars and trucks are taking a long time to "arrive", but in typical new tech fashion, their growth is following an exponential curve, and soon they'll be the norm. Germany recently announced all cars manufactured there will be electric by 2030, and the UK and France have banned new petrol and diesel cars from 2040.

Solar Sailor. Wikimedia Commons.

Solar Sailor. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

It's surprising though that little attention has been paid to the marine scene. We should pay attention - the same exponential curve is evident.

There are already over 100 manufacturers of electric boats and ships, according to a recent IDTechEx report. The report argues that the sector is fragmented but often highly profitable, growing fast, and predicts the market for hybrid and pure electric non-military vessels will hit over US$20 billion by 2027. Recreational boats is the largest and fastest growing category by unit sales, followed by underwater leisure and autonomous submarines. Commercial marine is the largest category by value.

The report also projects that leisure craft on inland waterways will become the largest sector as “countries from Germany to India ban internal combustion engines”. Perhaps it’s only a matter of time before places like Waikawa Stream will be freed from screaming outboards scaring the birds away.

One driver is the enormous carbon emissions of commercial shipping. The World Shipping Council points to evidence in a 2015 report by Drewry Supply Chain Advisors that shippers are continually reducing emissions by commissioning larger ships and steaming slower.  However, the IDTechEx report claims one large ship still emits the same amount of carbon dioxide as 70,000 cars, the acidic nitrogen oxides as 2 million cars, and the carcinogenic particulates as 2.5 million cars. A 2009 Guardian article cited research indicating the world’s largest 15 ships emitted as much pollution as the 760m cars in the world then.

The report predicts – like with electric cars – that costs will plummet due to increasingly cheap electricity, energy harvesting (through sun, waves, tides, and wind), and reliability.

The other five benefits are silent operation, unbeatable acceleration (like Tesla’s famous ‘Ludicrous Mode”), autonomous navigation being easier, rescue vessels having on-board electricity for relief operations, and maximum power for tugboats.

Tesla Roadster. Wikimedia Commons.

Tesla Roadster. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Not only does the report expect that soon hundreds of thousands of electric outboards will be sold each year, it also notes there is already a fast growing market for retrofitting traditional ferries with hybrid propulsion, and hybrid ferries with pure electric.

“The future of boating is electric – and silent” said Lacy Cooke in her 21 June piece on inhabitat.com. She reports how Dutch firm Soel Yachts has manufactured its first solar-powered electric boat in New Zealand, which it likes to call a “Tesla on the water”. It achieves 8 knots for 6 hours, or 6 knots for 24 hours.

It’s not all stately cruising though. Another firm trying to cash in on comparisons to Tesla is Seattle start-up Pure Watercraft, which pitches its electric outboard on a rigid inflatable as the “Tesla for boats”. Cara Kuhlman reported, in a Geekwire.com article dated 13 April 2016, that one target market is support for rowers. The low-wake design and almost silent operation led Harvard, Stanford and the University of Washington to place pre-orders. The outboard will drive a 16 foot fibreglass fishing boat at 20 knots.

German boat makers aren’t mucking around. KT Flannery, in another inhabitat.com article, is clearly impressed by the NOX SV electric speedboat being manufactured by Rivers and Tides. It’s beautiful indeed, being made of teak and mahogany, but also has a 225hp electric motor that promises 65 knots – that’s 120kph!.

In the commercial sphere, in 2015 Norwegian boat builder Selfa Arctic launched the Karoline, an 11m sole-operator inshore fishing boat powered by a Siemens 195kWh electric motor supplied by Corvus lithium polymer battery modules. It operates for a full fishing day.

Corvus Energy is a Canadian company which also provided the battery technology for a tug that started work in the Port of Los Angeles in 2009. On their website, CTO Neil Simmonds says “The marine market is dramatically growing. We are at the forefront of the market.” He argues economics are a key driver, citing in relation to electric tugs pushing their big brothers around, that “if the owner can turn off the engines and go to and fro from the harbor… under electric power, it can reduce up to 30% off fuel bills”.

In another sign of impending exponential growth, the Norwegians are launching a container ship called the Yara Birkeland in 2018 that will be the world’s first electric, autonomous, zero-emissions ship. It will move between three ports in southern Norway, but is a huge sign of things to come.

Westhaven Marina Z Pier. Rob Bolton.

Westhaven Marina, Z Pier. Source: Rob Bolton.

My mate Rob doesn’t spend all his time on the water. He’s also the Managing Director of Go Fuel, the leading provider of traditional fuel for marinas around Aotearoa. You’ll be pleased to know he’s not sitting on his hands, and is already exploring options for electric go fuel recharging stations for his network. This includes discussions with one major commercial operator in Auckland that is looking at electric vessels.

Here come cleaner, cheaper to run, quieter, quicker to accelerate boats and ships that also provide reserve power and massive torque.