Electric boats: Clean, quiet, cheap and on their way

Mar 16, 2020 · 12 min read

Kevin Jenkins / 13 July 2019

This article was first published in The New Zealand Herald on 13 July 2019.

My sailing career petered out after the 25 footer I was crewing on got run over by a huge Yugoslav fishing fleet mothership at 1am 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 this multi-storey black steel behemoth. Good times.

Boats are part of New Zealand culture and not just for fun. We rely on ships for trade and, increasingly, on ferries to move around. The industry has a dirty secret though — it’s not as clean as it could be, and this is drawing more and more attention.

Boats following cars on electric’s exponential curve

The increasing frequency of complaints about cruise ship emissions is an early sign of people expecting more. There has been talk about electric boats for years, as much for performance issues as for reducing pollution. But are they a realistic option at scale?

Electric cars and trucks still haven’t fully arrived yet, but in typical new-tech fashion their growth is following an exponential curve, and soon they’ll be the norm. Germany has declared that all cars manufactured there will be electric by 2030, and the UK and France plan to ban new petrol and diesel cars from 2040.

It’s surprising though that little attention has been paid to the marine scene, where the same exponential curve is evident. There are already more than 100 manufacturers of electric boats and ships, according to a 2017 IDTechEx report.

The sector is fragmented but growing fast and often highly profitable, the report says, and it predicts that the market for hybrid and pure electric non-military vessels will be more than US$20 billion ($29.9b) by 2027.

Recreational boats make up 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’.

1 container ship = 70,000 cars’ worth of CO2

One driver here is the enormous carbon emissions of commercial shipping. The global industry has been trying to address this according to the World Shipping Council, which says shippers are continually reducing emissions by commissioning larger ships and steaming more slowly.

But one container ship still emits roughly the same amount of carbon dioxide as 70,000 cars, as much acidic nitrogen oxides as 2.0 million cars, and as much carcinogenic particulates as 2.5 million cars.

Even worse, a 2009 report in The Guardian indicated that, taking into account the low-grade, tar-like ‘bunker’ fuel used in the shipping industry, the world’s 15 biggest ships may emit as much pollution as all of the world’s 760 million cars!

The global industry has been trying to address the enormous carbon emissions of commercial shipping. / Image source: Unsplash

Bunker fuel is the cheap and dirty residue left over from crude oil. Regulators and the industry itself have been responding to the environmental and health risks it presents.

Among other things, bunker fuel contains high levels of sulphur, and the International Maritime Organisation, the UN regulator, has announced new regulations for 2020 that will cut the permissible sulphur content in fuel significantly.

Meanwhile Danish giant Maersk, the world’s biggest container shipping company, has announced it aims to be carbon-neutral by 2050. It’s admittedly a fairly distant target, but Maersk — which alone pumps out 36 million tonnes of greenhouse gases each year — says it’s pushing for big breakthroughs in the next 10 years. It says it wants commercially viable carbon-neutral ships on the water by 2030.

The benefits of going electric

Maersk isn’t looking just to electric to help it reach its targets — it’s also talking about biofuels. This is a fast-moving area, and Norway for example has recently pumped money into a major R&D programme looking at hydrogen as a viable clean energy source for shipping.

However, electric undoubtedly offers major benefits. The 2017 IDTechEx report predicts that running costs will plummet for electric ships and boats (as with electric cars) due to increasingly cheap electricity, new forms of energy harvesting (sun, waves, tides and wind), and the greater reliability of electric engines.

Electric vessels offer other key benefits besides lower costs — including silent operation; instantaneous maximum power and unbeatable acceleration (like Tesla’s famous ‘Ludicrous Mode’); easier autonomous navigation; and on-board electricity for other important functions, like rescue vessels’ relief operations.

The IDTechEx report expects that soon hundreds of thousands of electric outboards will be being sold each year. It also notes there’s already a fast-growing market for retrofitting traditional ferries with hybrid propulsion, and hybrid ferries with pure electric.

‘Tesla of the sea’

“The future of boating is electric — and silent”, said Lacy Cooke in inhabitat.com in 2017. She reported how Dutch firm Soel Yachts manufactured its first solar-powered electric boat in New Zealand. It can do 8 knots for six hours, or 6 knots for 24 hours.

Built at Greenhithe on Auckland’s North Shore, the first SoelCat 12 is now cruising in French Polynesia for a beach resort and spa under the name Okeanos Pearl. It’s billed as the ‘Tesla of the sea’.

Joep Koster, co-founder of Soel Yachts, told me recently his firm is now looking towards the next generation of solar-powered boats, including developing new firmware for its electric drive system to increase safety and ease of use.

Soel Yachts is also teaming up with Explore Group, which runs yacht and motorboat cruises in Auckland and the Bay of Islands, to explore the feasibility of operating the first electric spectating boats for the America’s Cup 2021 in the Waitematā harbour.

Another firm making comparisons with what Elon Musk is doing on land is Seattle start-up Pure Watercraft — it pitches its electric outboard on a rigid inflatable as the ‘Tesla for boats’ (Cara Kuhlman, Geekwire.com). The ‘Pure Outboard’ will drive a 16-foot fibreglass fishing boat at 20 knots. Another of the target markets is rowing support — the low-wake design and almost silent operation led Harvard, Stanford and the University of Washington to place pre-orders for the Pure Outboard.

German boat makers aren’t mucking around either. The NOX SV electric speedboat, manufactured by Rivers and Tides in Bavaria, clearly impressed KT Flannery at inhabitat.com. Made of teak and mahogany the NOX SV is beautiful indeed, but it also has a 225hp electric motor that promises 65 knots — that’s 120km/h!

The future of commercial shipping

In 2015 Norwegian boat builder Selfa Arctic AS launched the hybrid Karoline, an 11-metre sole-operator inshore fishing boat. Its electric motor was manufactured by German industrial giant Siemens, and it runs on Corvus lithium polymer battery modules that have a total capacity of 195 kWh. The Karoline diesels to and from the fishing grounds, where it can then operate for a full fishing day on electric.

Corvus Energy is a Canadian company that also provided the battery technology for a hybrid tug that started work in the Port of Los Angeles in 2009. Corvus’s Chief Technical Officer, Neil Simmonds says: “The marine market is dramatically growing. We are at the forefront.” He argues that economics is a key driver for tug operators, and that “if the owner can turn off the [diesel] engines and go to and fro from the harbor … under electric power, it can reduce up to 30 per cent off fuel bills.”

Norway is a leader in the field. The first electric ferry was launched in 2015, and was so successful that reports say 53 more were promptly ordered.

Taking a few leaps ahead, Norwegian fertiliser company Yara International is launching the world’s first electric and fully autonomous cargo ship in 2020. Relatively small at 70 metres long and 20 metres wide, the Yara Birkeland will still be able to take 120 containers because it doesn’t need room for humans. Yara claims its new ship will replace 40,000 truck journeys a year.

Can we go electric on the water in Aotearoa?

I guess Soel Yachts thinks so — and so does Auckland and Hauraki Gulf ferry operator Fullers360.

Fullers chief executive Mike Horne is passionate about how ferries can ease traffic woes in Auckland, and how electric ferries will multiply those benefits. In November 2018 he presented Fullers’ plan for “collaboration to foster an extended, more effective ferry network for a growing Auckland.” The vision is for lots of sleek, fast electric ferries carrying 8 million passengers between many more locations across the wider Auckland area.

However, Fullers’ electric plan would require lots of new infrastructure, and some are baulking at that and asking who would pay. So there are a lot of issues to work through.

On the other hand, it’s hard not to think it’s just a matter of time before electric ferries win out. Our Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority (EECA) is also offering a boost for entrepreneurs wanting to lead the way here — EECA recently set up a contestable $800,000 fund for “projects to demonstrate the viability of electric passenger ferries in New Zealand.”

Real developments on the water

Moving from plans to real developments on the water, what’s notable is how New Zealand boat-builders have been making moves. This fits, given the country’s long history and strong international reputation in boat manufacturing and exporting.

In Tauranga, ex-navy sailor, fisherman and shipbroker Sean Kelly has founded Electric Boats Ltd, which launched its first plug-in prototype in 2018. This one is purpose-designed and all-electric. Naval architect Nick Herd has designed the bow like a Native American canoe.

The boat uses Tesla batteries that last about an hour at the top speed of 25 knots, or much longer if cruising. They can be fast-charged at a charging station in one hour, or charged overnight using a caravan plug or domestic electricity supply.

Kelly intends to initially target lake, river and aquaculture uses. He points out that an all-electric vessel operating in, for example, an oyster farm leaves no combustion residue behind.

The first zero-emissions passenger ferry in Aotearoa

The first serious commercial prospect to hit the water though looks likely to be East by West Ferries in Wellington. They have commissioned a $4 million, 19-metre, 135-passenger ferry, designed by Auckland naval architects SSC, and the first electric ferry to be built in the southern hemisphere.

The new ferry is scheduled to join the East by West commuter network on Wellington Harbour in December 2019, doing the Queen’s Wharf–Day’s Bay run. The ferry is being built at Seaview in the Hutt Valley by the Wellington Electric Boat Building Company (WEBB), which is headed by ex-Whāngārei boat builder Fraser Foote.

This will be New Zealand’s first all-electric, zero-emissions passenger ferry. Quiet and cheaper to run, it will travel at 20 knots, and can complete three round trips before it needs recharging. The clever design includes foam construction and flat carbon-fibre panels with only the lower hull needing moulding, which all reduces cost and assembly time. With this lightweight construction, it’s also easier to accommodate the weight of batteries.

WEBB chief executive Jeremy Ward is a man of boundless enthusiasm for electric boats, and he told me the firm plans to build many more electric ferries, including two 30–40 seaters for a projected new Wellington CBD–Airport service (using Miramar Wharf). International interest is intense too — Ward will be speaking at the Electric Hybrid Marine World Expo in Amsterdam in June 2019.

Regulating this new electric world

As you’d expect, electric vessels are going to present regulators with a new raft of issues. Kenny Crawford, Deputy Director Systems Assurance at Maritime New Zealand, ran through some of these for me.

For example, a vessel’s captain is expected to have a certain engineering knowledge — so what type and level of technical knowledge will an electric vessel’s captain need in order for regulators to be satisfied they can operate the vessel and fix things when they go wrong?

Electric cars and trucks still haven’t fully arrived yet, but in typical new-tech fashion their growth is following an exponential curve. Image source: Pixabay

Some key hazards are likely to be new and different. Take refuelling — with traditional fuel a key danger is an oil spill polluting the water, but with electric the concern is going to be very high-voltage electricity going over water. This is an area where Maritime NZ will work closely with WorkSafe to ensure safety.

One challenge is that Maritime NZ is working with legislation — the Maritime Transport Act 1994 — that’s now a quarter-century old, and all the rules issued under the Act have been written for traditional vessels.

Some rules — vessel stability for example — translate fine to electric. But others, like the fire safety rule, present problems. Maritime NZ told me it will approach the task of regulating electric vessels by using the exemption framework in the Act. So if an electric vessel operator can show that their fire safety system is as good as or better than what the fire safety rule requires, Maritime NZ can grant them an exemption.

Overseas regulators, including the International Maritime Organisation, are also grappling with these kinds of issues, and in setting new standards and ensuring there’s an appropriate regulatory framework, Maritime NZ will look to and work closely with its international colleagues. The Danes are in the lead here. For example the Danish Maritime Authority is currently doing a major study of the safety of lithium ion batteries.

Autonomous shipping: Implications of vessels without humans

Electric ships and boats also raise some new safety and environmental issues that will fall outside the scope of maritime regulation. How, for example, are we going to dispose safely of all those batteries when they reach the end of their life?

The related area of autonomous and near-autonomous shipping also presents a diverse range of issues for regulators. Current regulations assume the presence of humans on a vessel. So in the case of, say, an autonomous vessel doing seafloor mapping, who — and where — is ‘the captain’? In a recent case of a partly autonomous, partly remote controlled vessel doing seafloor mapping in Fiordland, Maritime NZ incorporated the vessel into the mother ship’s management system for regulatory purposes.

Out in the big ocean though there are other implications — like search and rescue. How would a completely autonomous container ship rescue the crew of a small disabled fishing boat for example, particularly if the rescued crew are sick or injured?

The implications go beyond traditional maritime safety regulatory issues. In the case of near-autonomous container shipping, there will be increasing mental health risks to monitor. Crewing on international shipping can be a lonely, isolated job anyway, and crew sizes have been coming down for years with new technology and new efficiencies. With tiny skeleton crews on massive, near-autonomous ships, the risks, including of suicide, may get worse.

Electric is the future

The new electric world will of course require major changes to infrastructure. My mate Rob Bolton is the managing director of GOfuel, 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 in discussions to set up electric recharging stations for his GOfuel network.

GOfuel plans to offer marine customers a choice of low-emissions fuel (Premium Blue diesel) or electric. Rob says customers are already inquiring about charging facilities for electric boats of all sizes: “We want to have fast-charging stations ready to go to meet future demand from both commercial and recreational boaties — electric is the future.”

So here come quieter, cheaper, environmentally friendly boats and ships. Hopefully they’ll be good at accelerating out of the way of giant ships in the middle of the night too.

About the author

Kevin Jenkins a Co-Founder of the professional services firm MartinJenkins together with Doug Martin in 1993.

Kevin has undertaken a wide range of assignments in the science and innovation, economic development, and tertiary education sectors — for example, work on the establishment of Callaghan Innovation (New Zealand’s advanced technology institute). He has worked a lot in the justice sector, including leading a major programme targeted at leveling off the increase in the prison muster, and another at ensuring that the cost of the sector is stabilised.

Kevin is a regular contributor to the New Zealand Herald.

Kevin Jenkins

Please give this article a clap, email MartinJenkins at admin@martinjenkins.co.nz and follow us on LinkedIn and Twitter.

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