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Behind the scenes of Britain's electrical boat revolution

by Ieuan Dolby

'Climate emergency' has gripped the developed world. Norway declares it will be 'carbon neutral' by 2050, Sweden 'net-zero' by 2045 and the Britain's less ambitious but still positive approach is to reduce 1993 emissions by 80% by 2050. However, societal views on emissions will likely bring about change faster than current and prospective, and indeed futuristic government targets will, not through obscure carbon swaps or delayed reckoning carbon capture but through visual and tangible result.

To look at this another way, the simplest and most reasonable and ideological method to reducing carbon emissions is not to 'produce then capture' but to stop producing in the first place.

One large and recognised emitter is the 'fossil fuel' burning engine. The engine, a functional symbol of the industrial revolution is after more than 120 years falling out of fashion. The world tries to retain it, through hybrid solutions and use of 'sustainable oils', but these are now recognised as stop-gap solutions. Prospectively, the capital cost (CAPEX) and operating cots (OPEX) of installing an engine could soon outweigh alternative solutions – not quite yet, but not too far away either.

Driven by the altruistic and environment protective views of a younger generation the venerated engine will in our lifetime become a frowned upon and devaluating asset. Similar to the once accepted habit of smoking in public spaces, change can be swift and all-encompassing. With expectation that current environmental interest will be sustained, a fuel-burning engine in its current form will be confined to history – or at least to one's own backyard. To take to the road, to visit tourist areas, inner cities or quiet towns will become an act of selfish obtuseness or indeed an illegal act. Therefore, ownership of an engine will in the longer term become unsustainable and increasingly expensive as the tools, equipment and back-up systems diminish in proportion to the rise of various electrically powered options.

Britain is not yet ready nor cannot afford to dismiss the engine – we are after-all still burning coal - nor can we envisage confining it to museum status but we will undoubtedly do so over the next decades. The nostalgic pall of back smoke, the chug, vroom and resultant smell of half-burnt fumes will no longer be reminiscent of the industrial revolution, the once invoked image of oily engineering activity being replaced by the need and desire for a 'greener' solution.

The advance and indeed encroachment of electric bikes, electric cars, windmills, tidal turbines, flow machines, battery storage, solar panels, etc. is well documented. Positive news ebbs and flows alongside rapidly reducing manufacturing costs as mass production takes hold and the fear of the unknown gradually but steadfastly dissipates to one of intrigue. Numerous solar panels now adorn roof tops, windmills split the land and separate sea from sky, and 'Tesla' of infamous electric car fame has made us all aware that 'electric' solutions are here to stay. And through all our minds we repeat, "When shall I … fit solar panels / buy an electric bicycle / check out the price of an electric car?" We are all thinking about such things, waiting for costs to drop, waiting for those who have already jumped to the other side to issue confirmed verdicts and we wait for society to tell us what the new norm will be.

Whilst a transformative electric revolution has gripped land-based vehicles, to the extent that the demise of the car diesel engine is near predictable, ships and boats have largely remained to the side-lines of public attention and change. Yes, for larger ocean-going vessels, the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) have recently produced a legal framework for reducing nitrogen and sulphur emissions, but it took so long to ratify the legal framework, that it no longer satisfies – it is obsolete before it has been implemented. After January 2020 (when the new law takes effect) the fuel used by many large ships will still be treacle-like, thick and extremely polluting and therefore unacceptable to today's holistic green requirement.

A rapid solution to obtaining large ship carbon neutrality will remain elusive and nearly impossible to achieve when the 172 nations that form IMO have vastly differing opinions and agendas. Change might eventually come in the form of wind power assisted propulsion, LNG-fuelled or hybrid solutions and indeed through increasing the quality of the fuel being burnt (e.g. reducing the sulphur content further) but with current technologies these would appear to be stop-gap solutions. Perhaps, a serious consideration (one day) will be to produce one's goods in ones own backyard; a drastic concept for globalisation and business but would result in a drastic reduction in the number of large vessels ploughing the oceans.  Less ships, less pollution!

It is of course easier to implement change at a national level. For local ferries, workboats, domestic barges and tugs, yachts and pleasure boats there are more immediate solutions to obtaining 'greener' credentials. For example, Norway, with over 750,000 leisure boats (over 24% of the population owns a boat), has embraced electric powered solutions for their domestic and leisure craft.  An article titled, Market Barriers Towards Electric Boats by Truls Tveitdal, Department of Design at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, discusses various barriers to acceptance of electric propulsion, and how the step-change has to undergo a relaxation in customers fears of insufficient range, speed or endurance. But like the car, the bicycle and now even the airplane, advancements in batteries, storage and motors prove that such fears are steadfastly easing with prospective and current owners now turning to the question of, 'If the neighbour has one, why can't I'?" Since publication of the article in 2017, Norway has demonstrated that the electric boat revolution is there to stay and that the 'fears' are largely unfounded.

Advantages of electric propulsion for small boats, apart from the obvious emissions reductions, are well documented. These range from the 'silent' experience and reduced vibration to a substantial reduction in net weight, CAPEX, and OPEX. It is therefore more-or-less guaranteed that electric boats will become an acceptable and palatable solution to the currently offending engine. Indeed, electrically propelled boats are destined to sail on the same wavelength as the environmental protectionism given to Britain's irreverent rivers, lakes (lochs) and canal networks.  One simply goes with the other; the protection given to the water unachievable and unfulfilled until the boats are designed to match.

Britain, unlike Norway, has not yet embraced the electric boat, neither from the viewpoint of wanting to reduce emissions or from the recognised inherent savings and increased waterborne experience. But logically, now is just about the right time to do so; least of all because a polluting engine is now viewed as anti-societal with canal networks likely placing restrictions on their use in preference to environmentally friendly options. And, with Britain's protected canals, what is more perfect than a silent, non-polluting craft that slowly meanders through the countryside? The technology is available, has been tried and proven – like with the electric car, acceptance and demand will follow in progressive manner.

According to the Royal Yacht Association (RYA), there are some 1.13 million boats / watercraft in Britain of which 541,000 falls into the category of 'leisure boats'. Of leisure boats, there are currently 33,000 canal boats ripe and ready to be electrified, in what is already a booming inshore market. Some companies have already positioned themselves, e.g. Lynch Motors, representing the beginning of a market waiting to blossom as it becomes mainstream. Unlike a petrol or diesel-fuelled car, canal boats can be retrofitted with electric motors at reasonable cost. Their slow speed conducive to small power requirements and greater endurance. But in Britain today there is no serious mega-scale retrofit or new-build solution. Now is the time to be entering the market, now is the time to embrace the electric revolution, to compete and surpass Norway in acceptance and use of electric-propulsion technology and now is the time for Britain to become a hub of step-change in removing the polluting engine from our waterways.

Britain, as an island nation, is suitably positioned to lead the world in the progressive shift to electric boats, not only those used for pleasure but also commercially. A good example of commercialisation has been initiated by Belgium and the Netherlands who will shortly place into operation five electric-propelled container barges. Further information on these barges can be viewed here. These barges not only use electricity for propulsion but (though default) remove a large number of polluting haulage trucks from the roads (as currently required to shift those same containers). Amsterdam is a city with a policy that requires every commercial ship to be 'zero-emissions' on its canals by 2020 or 2025. Read more here.  The best way to be near 'zero-emitting' is to install electric propulsion.

A 2017 article titled, E-Boats, Anyone? Electric Boat Market to Reach $20 Billion By 2027, reckons that "The market for non-military electric watercraft and marine motors will balloon to over $20 billion worldwide by 2027." If even a quarter of this figure is realised, now is the time to not only jump on the bandwagon but to lead it, vigorously and actively – 2027 is only eight years away!

Britain will undoubtedly enter into a national waterborne electrical revolution both for the pleasure and commercial markets. It is obvious that the creation of environmental, water-based solutions would not only reduce pollution on the water but remove thousands of large Heavy Goods Vehicles (HGVs) from Britain's roads in what could only be a natural, progressive and cost-effective path for pleasurable business.

The only unknown is when this 'revolution' will begin.

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