Quiet, zero-emissions electric boats and motors growing in popularity
There’s no doubt that electric transportation is permeating the country. Electric trains and hybrid buses now serve as alternatives to their gas- and diesel-driven mass transit counterparts, and it’s hard to take a road trip without seeing quite a few electric and hybrid cars on the way, so it’s no wonder that the technology has seeped into the boating market.
Electric boating serves two primary segments — the niche electric boat market consisting of boats that travel around 5 mph and the growing electric outboard market that has evolved to propel a variety of boats.
Though currently small, the electric boat market is built on a foundation of delivering a boating experience void of engine noise and air pollution. As a means to that end, manufacturers have delivered a variety of ways for boaters to propel their vessels, from plug-in or solar-powered electric motors to pedal-run paddles.
The Loon, a pontoon offered by Tamarack Lake Electric Boats, draws most of the power for its electric motor from its rooftop solar panel, though it can also be plugged in to power longer journeys, such as the 12-day 250-mile Erie Canal trip Tamarack Lake president Montgomery Gisborne took in 2007.
“Going across New York state on the Erie Canal, half of the energy came from the sun and half of the energy came from the electrical grid, from shore power,” he said.
Gisborne launched his Rome, N.Y.-based business in 2005 to bring a non-polluting option to boaters. As a child, he never fully embraced boating because as an environmentalist he couldn’t get past the pollution his parents’ 43-foot diesel cruiser was producing. But after tinkering in other electric vehicles, he decided an electric solar-powered boat was needed in the industry.
On a sunny day in relatively calm waters, Tamarack Lake’s Loon can cruise at 4 knots solely on solar power, without any battery input. The boat’s top speed is 8 knots. Gisborne said he built his pontoons with solar panels because it made sense for an outdoor vehicle to rely on the sun for power.
“The sun adds two benefits to electric boats, in general,” Gisborne said. “It increases autonomy and range by obviously providing free energy on the fly, but also the battery performs better. They actually act as if they’re bigger if you have a solar array assisting.”
His customers, he says, use sun much in the way sail boaters use the wind. And, because the boat’s batteries store energy, solar boating on the Loon can even be enjoyed on cloudy days.
A solar panel is also newly available on Apex Marine’s Paddle Qwest, an electric or pedal-driven compact pontoon.
“Brand new for this year we’ve added the solar panel option, so the solar panel will recharge the battery bank, even while you’re out there using it,” said Bob Blum, director of sales at Apex marine. “We’re not quite to perpetual motion, but the new 24-volt motor runs off of 6 amps, and the solar panel is producing 5.7 amps.”
Paddle Qwest users have two propulsion options, either one to two riders can pedal the boat, or a 24-volt electric motor can be deployed. Apex sees the Paddle Qwest as an alternative to traditional paddle boats or other small boats.
“We’re always trying to be innovative and come up with new ideas and new products that will help establish our dealer network, their uniqueness and diversity,” Blum said.
Also playing in the electric boat market is Duffy, an Adelanto, Calif.-based manufacturer that has been producing electric bay boats since 1968. The 5 mph Duffys are run off golf cart engines.
“Really our boat is just a golf cart, and that’s the cool thing because it’s just so darn reliable and easy to fix,” said builder Duffy Duffield.
Though electric boats are appealing because of their lack of air or water pollution and their quiet operation, electric boat builders are still finding a hard time breaking into many markets. Because of their low speed, electric boats are primarily used in areas where speed and noise restrictions are in effect.
California’s Newport Harbor is home to 3,000 Duffys, and many Tamarack Lake Loons reside on pristine lakes. Apex’s Paddle Qwest can be found in coves and on small lakes.
Paddle Qwest users vary from grandparents buying the boat for their grandkids to couples looking for a leisurely ride to fitness buffs seeking an alternative exercise source. The Loon appeals to Baby Boomers, and Duffys are owned mostly by affluent customers.
“When you can only go 5 mph in your area, then you’re OK, and it’s cool,” Duffield said.
In a venture to appeal to more customers and increase its offerings, Duffy is developing a 25-foot, 266 horsepower electric boat that will travel at 35 mph. The upcoming boat will run for one hour at 35 mph and longer at 25 mph, with 80 percent battery restoration after an hour-long charge. Included will be the woodcrafted body and luxurious features Duffy owners are accustomed to. Already in prototype, the boat is being developed for areas such as Lake Arrowhead east of Los Angeles, where there’s a 35 mph speed limit and noise restrictions during certain hours. The development is something that Duffield expects will propel the company forward in the minds of more customers.
“What’s important for us is to not let the technology pass us by,” he said. “I don’t want Duffy to be sitting there at 5 mph when the world is going 30.”
For those looking to take electric energy and add it to the boats they already own and love, electric motors have pushed past technology of the future and have become a viable option for the modern day.
Two leaders in the electric motor market are Torqeedo and Elco. Torqeedo produces a three-phase DC brushless outboard motor with a patented outrunner lined with rare earth magnets. Elco has a brushless AC diesel-replacement induction motor.
Elco has six different motor sizes, ranging from 6 to 100 hp diesel equivalent, and they can be run in boats up to 80 feet. Torqeedo’s line of motors are most commonly used on kayaks, cruisers, daysailers, dinghies, tenders, pontoons, small skips, fishing boats and more. Its latest model, the 55kw Deep Blue, is an 80 hp equivalent.
“All of a sudden now we’re playing with the big boys,” said Steve Trkla, president of Torqeedo. “We’ve partnered with companies such as Zodiac and Edgewater and Apex Marine pontoon boats, Scarab, Calypso, which is an ocean skip out of Fort Lauderdale, and now you’ve got planing boats that also have range. And so it’s really become kind of a game changer, if you will, and this is really the direction that Torqeedo is going into these larger horsepower classes.”
Elco is also in discussions with a pair of trawler manufacturers about supplying them with electric motors.
“There’s a tremendous amount of interest we’re starting to see beyond people just wanting to convert their boat to electric. We’re seeing a lot of OEMs beginning to really look at this seriously and recognize that this is the wave of the future, and they want to be a part of it,” reported Steve Lamando, CEO of Elco.
Besides the environmental benefits, electric motors are also chosen for their efficiency, which far exceeds their combustion counterparts.
“Our motors are about 92 percent efficient as compared with a combustion engine, which would be somewhere in the neighborhood of about 30 to 40 percent efficient,” Lamando explained. “What that means is one unit of energy going into the motor, we only have about 8 percent losses if we’re 92 percent efficient, where a combustion motor, whether it be diesel or gas, has a lot more losses.”
Elco motors also require no winterization and little maintenance, other than checking the battery about once per year. And electric motors, like electric boats, are extremely quiet.
“You can get into an electric boat with no warm up,” said Joe Flemming, AC motor designer for Elco. “You just get in and turn the key, and you have full power, full torque instantly. In a matter of two seconds, you’re off and going. And maneuvering, it’s about two to three times faster going from forward to reverse with electric than it is with a diesel or a gas engine, so for maneuvering in tight corners, getting into a slip alongside a dock or something like that, much more maneuverable.”
Of course, the environmental benefits usually play a big factor in the reasoning behind an electric motor purchase. Not only is air pollution diminished, but so is water pollution.
“Especially in the boating industry, one of the things that people are most interested in is not only the fact that there’s less fumes and smell on the boat, but in a boat ultimately anything that oil and gas end up in a bilge, and then it goes out the bilge pump into the body of water, so I think the environmental benefit is almost two-fold when you get into the boating industry and the boating world,” Lamando said.
To increase Torqeedo’s eco-friendliness, the company has added to its offerings a 45-watt solar charger that charges its flagship Travel outboard.
“We implanted a port that allows you to hook up a solar panel to it. And so what we like to market and brag about is that a 45-watt panel, and that’s what it is, it’s basically 45 watts, and if you drive 45 watts on the motor while the sun is out, you’ll basically have continuous run time,” Trkla said.
Though upfront costs sometimes prevent a customer from considering electric versus gas or diesel power, the costs can balance out, or even favor the electric motor in the long run. It’s one hurdle the electric motor segment is trying to overcome.
“Even though the price of lithium has come down dramatically over the last five years, it still costs more,” Trkla said. “Now, with electric you always can try to sell the message about buying your 10-years worth of fuel up front, and over time it becomes cost beneficial. But up front, when you’re talking about the immediate pain level, gas motors versus electric solutions are definitely less money, and so I think that to grab that customer, they have to get to a pain level where it’s just too dang expensive to operate their boats any more.”
Another obstacle electric motors have faced is the battery size often means making more room for energy storage with electric motors than a boat would need for a fuel tank with a gas or diesel motor. Also, battery weight can be several times that of the fuel needed for an equivalent combustion engine, Flemming said. However, strides are being made in that respect because of battery usage not only in boats, but also in cars and other applications.
“There are huge amounts of money being spent on better, lighter and cheaper batteries, and usually necessity is the mother of invention, and I think there is a need here, the necessity is for more efficient cars, more efficient boats,” Flemming said.
Torqeedo has begun working with Johnson Controls to produce marine-grade lithium ion batteries for Torqeedo’s uses.
On top of battery size, range can also be an issue, as consumers with electric-only engines have to rely on a stored charge to run their boats. Though this continues to be problematic, range is increasing as technology advances.
“Destination boating was always difficult, but now with the technologies in lithium batteries that’s changing. It’s changing the equation and allowing you to now have destination boating and electric,” Trkla said. “We’re still not there. We’re still not comparable to gas, but it’s getting there, and it will be there.”
To quell range woes, Elco’s motors can be used in conjunction with a diesel-powered generator that keeps the electric motor charged for a continuous cruise, or they can be run parallel with a diesel motor, with both working together or separately. In a parallel system, for example, the electric motor may be used when traveling 5-10 knots, with the diesel motor taking over at speeds beyond that. Though those systems ultimately use biofuels, an electric motor with a diesel generator has the ability to travel three times as far as a diesel motor with the same amount of fuel.
Though electric boats and motors are becoming more commonplace, they still face reservations from some buyers who are used to the gas and diesel engines that have filled the industry throughout their lives.
“Americans still have an insatiable love for gas, and so I think gas motors aren’t going away any time soon, but we certainly are staking our claim in grabbing far larger market shares, and we’ll continue to do that,” Trkla said.
With greater acceptance of electric and hybrid vehicles, people are realizing the benefits of electric power, and electric motor manufacturers see that as being a boost to the boating industry as well. It’s expected that the younger generation, which is more accustomed to electric-powered transportation, will drive the push toward electric propulsion in the boating industry.
“I think it’s somewhat of a generational thing that we’re facing, not just we but the industry, and there’s an awful lot of people that grew up with entrenched knowledge, they grew up with gasoline or diesel engines in their boats, and their daddy had a boat with a gas or a diesel engine, and that’s sort of entrenched thinking,” Flemming said. “And then if you’re a boat builder or you’re refurbishing a boat, there’s people like Yanmar or Volvo who are entrenched suppliers and so you’re sort of cracking, opening the door into their territory, but, I believe, the younger generation of boaters coming along, I think they see it.”
Like the electric boat segment, the electric motor market is benefitting from lakes “going green.” In Europe, many lakes already have horsepower or pollution restrictions, making electric propulsion more popular overseas, but with many popular recreational lakes in the U.S. serving as drinking water reservoirs, Trkla expects environmental regulations to be enforced more widely across the country in the coming years.
“There is going to be more pressure that is going to be put on state and local governments to protect drinking water as the populations continue to grow and the demand on water continues to expand, so we do see that as a big driving force going forward,” Trkla said.
With his solar-powered pontoon, Gisborne is already seeing new customers approach the industry because of zero emissions, quiet, slow and environmentally friendly products available.
“A lot of our customers are first-time buyers. They’ve never owned a boat before; they’ve never been on a privately owned boat before,” he said.
For everyone in the electric boats and motors segments, education has become key, so teaching boaters about the alternative propulsion options available and exposing them to the technology is crucial to the segments’ success. In turn, customers are responding, now seeking out electric boat and motor suppliers at boat shows, asking about specific applications, rather than just visiting out of curiosity of the technology.
“When I first joined Torqeedo seven years ago, I used to say, ‘This is the future,’ but it’s really here now,” Trkla said. “The technologies are here now, and it’s being driven now.”