Vessels powered by electricity have been on the water for more than a century, and they’re only getting better with time.
With rising gas prices, tightening fuel standards, and the release of high-profile vehicles like Chevy’s Volt, the public has heard a lot about the electric car in recent years. Less attention has been paid to its waterborne cousin, the electric boat, though it has been similarly affected by technological advances and green regulations.
That’s largely because the marine industry is a fraction of the size of the auto industry and electric-powered vessels represent only a fraction of that.
“It’s a niche within a niche,” says Kevin Kearns, senior vice president of sales and marketing for Elco Motor Yachts.
However, that niche represents a clean, quiet, efficient alternative to conventional power systems, and although no one should write an obituary for internal combustion just yet, there are already applications today where electric presents an appealing alternative.
Electric through the years
Electric technology has actually been used to power boats since before the turn of the 20th century — well before Ole Evinrude popularized the gasoline-powered outboard. In fact, Elco got its start at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 by building 55 electric launches powered by Thomas Edison batteries.
Today’s technology has come a long way from where it was in Edison’s day, and coupled with fuel costs, a desire for convenience and a growing number of environmental restrictions, the technology has become quite attractive in certain situations.
ElectraCraft, which has been in business since 1975 building small electric boats, says most of its clientele own homes on private, electric-only lakes. For them, the choice to go electric is simple because it’s the only choice.
Like most of the current breed of electric boats, ElectraCraft’s vessels are not designed for speed. Skip Toller, the company’s owner, refers to the boats as floating golf carts. They are designed for people who want to cruise around the lake at 3 or 4 mph, relax and head back to the dock within a couple of hours. Range anxiety — one of the greatest concerns people express with electric boats — isn’t an issue, since a fully charged boat has more power than they generally need.
Other popular applications for electric motors today cover a range of boating styles, including fishing and hunting, powering a kayak or a canoe, or as propulsion for day sailors and tenders. Electric power is also popular in rental boats, water taxis, work boats and other high-use vessels that benefit from the increased efficiency.
Need for speed
As in the automobile industry, running a boat on electricity is cheaper and more efficient than using a gasoline engine, but that benefit is offset by higher upfront costs. In marine applications, a number of companies have delivered low-horsepower electric vessels at economical prices; however, achieving speeds greater than a few miles per hour on the water is still too expensive for mass production.
That’s not to say those speeds aren’t achievable or that costs won’t come down in the future. At Nautique, where speed is a primary concern, CEO Bill Yeargin says the company remains very interested in innovative propulsion, including electric.
“I firmly believe that in 10 years propulsion will be much different than it is today in Nautique, and we want to continue being the leader in this area,” Yeargin says.
Nautique showcased an all-electric ski boat two years ago and an all-electric wakeboard boat this year. The tests defied the stereotype of electric boats by being all-electric and high-performance.
Yeargin notes that he hears only two complaints about electric boats: cost and battery life. Both issues, he says, will be fixed with time. For comparison, he points to early cell phones that weighed down a briefcase.
“They were big, hugely expensive and the batteries did not last more than a handful of short calls,” Yeargin says. “Over time we have progressed to the cell phones of today that are more powerful than and a tiny fraction of the cost of the super computers of 30 years ago. That is what is happening with electric except it is going to happen much faster with electric engines.”
The boats at Go-Float, which resemble electric lounge chairs and can go all day on a single charge, reach a top speed of about 4 mph. However, the company has also demonstrated pulling a skier on a city lake where most boats are banned. At the moment, Go-Float’s engineering team is working on producing a 25-mph boat with extended run times for less than $20,000, according to Mark Overbye, who handles marketing for the brand.
In addition, Torqeedo won the overall DAME Award at the 2012 Marine Equipment Trade Show for its new Deep Blue 80-horsepower electric outboard.
Steve Trkla, president at Torqeedo Inc., calls the new outboard a “game-changer.” He says it has immediate applications in the commercial space and in military boats, where high gas use allows them to realize savings today. In Europe, which has both higher gas prices than the U.S. and more regulated waterways, the outboard is even getting a look from some recreational users.
Fortunately for the marine industry, automobile manufacturers are pouring huge sums of money into researching ways to improve electric battery technology, and boating will reap those benefits down the line.
Going the distance
As for battery life, the other major concern mentioned by Yeargin, the gauges onboard most electric boats help alleviate any worry. Because they are digital, they are far more accurate and can provide more information than a typical gas gauge.
Beyond that, there are solutions in place today that help extend total range beyond what today’s batteries can accommodate.
Tamarack Lake Electric Boat Company opened a facility in August to produce The Loon, a solar-electric, 22-foot pontoon. The vessel has the same basic characteristics as other electric boats, but harnessing the power of the sun increases its range to 35-40 miles.
According to Montgomery Gisborne, the company’s president, batteries are most likely to fail when they aren’t properly charged, and the addition of a solar array dramatically reduces the chances of that happening, since the sun helps eliminate human error.
Similarly, companies like Elco offer solar and wind recharging as available options with their electric motors. And for larger vessels, the motors can be linked to a generator that is already onboard.
One of the benefits of an electric motor is that it requires no winterization and little to no maintenance. That concerns some dealers, who count on service revenues as a vital part of their business models.
Overbye says dealers shouldn’t focus on lost service jobs when considering carrying electric but instead concentrate on expanding the reach of their businesses into a demographic and customer profile they don’t currently serve. He says adding an electric product can help brand a dealership as forward-thinking and green.
“It’s about winning customers more than worrying about losing service department business,” he says.
He also doesn’t see electric versus gas as an either/or situation.
“I don’t think you have to abandon conventional power systems,” Overbye says.
Plus, he notes, there are 100 years worth of traditional engines out in the marketplace.
Making the case
If we apply a classic model of the way innovation spreads, progressing through what sociologists have identified as innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority, and finally laggards, Overbye says we are still a long way from “early majority.” He sees electric as another five to seven years from reaching a critical mass with consumers.
What draws people to electric technology today is varied. For ElectraCraft, when the real estate market was good and more electric-only lakes were being developed, business was strong. For Kearns at Elco, the majority of his sales leads come from people who already have boats, whose old gas engines have died and are looking for a less troublesome replacement. Overbye says Go-Float products go mainly to people with lakefront homes who are looking for a unique water toy. All say the automobile industry has helped consumers see electric as a viable option.
As the technology improves, the benefits of electric — less pollution, less noise, less maintenance and less cost — will likely become increasingly attractive to consumers. However, even today, for applications that don’t require high top speeds or long running hours, electric is making a case for itself.