Are Electric Boats The Future?

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Marine power efficiency has improved greatly over the years. Looking at the different options, steam engines are roughly 10% efficient, gas is about 25% efficient, and diesel hovers around 35% efficient. Any guess where electric falls? More than 90% efficient!

Right now the marine electric motor is a proven concept. Experts have said, “Electric motors are there; in 20 years, 50 years they won’t have changed appreciably.”

So why aren’t they here yet?

Electric boats date back to the 19th century. Elco Motor Yachts, then called the Electric Launch Co., even built a number of 36 footers for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Electric motor technology is here; you can buy it now, install it now, and do it with confidence knowing that the technology hasn’t changed much in the last 50 years and won’t change much over the next 50 years.

The Problem?

So, what’s the problem? Why doesn’t everyone switch to electric motors? Why did one popular catamaran switch more than 100 boats over to electric technology a decade ago, and end up switching all of those back to diesel power?

The elephant in the room–The batteries.

With the current technology, batteries have roughly 1/20 of the energy content of diesel fuel. This means diesel fuel delivers 5 to 6 times more energy than modern batteries – pound for pound.

There are electric cars and trains that are diesel electric. Even Cunard’s Queen Mary 2 uses integrated electric propulsion. Airbus and Boeing already have electric airliners on the drawing board. While there is potential for the marine industry to take advantage of this technology, there are additional challenges that we must first overcome:

  1. We operate in a hostile, corrosive salt water environment that is death on the sensitive electronic power control modules needed to control and monitor this new technology.
  2. We travel to remote locations where the service and parts needed are not readily available and won’t be available for years.
  3. We have to be realistic and face that more and more, we’re bringing our power hungry appliances with us. From elaborate and multiple refrigeration units to heat and air conditioning, there are a multitude of appliances all competing for our main electrical consumption. Even with the improved technology of solar cells and other charging sources, we just can’t keep up with what’s needed and leave room for people and supplies at a competitive cost.

Bottom line? Yes, electric motors are coming, but the technology is nowhere near ready for prime time yet. In 50 years? Absolutely. Sooner? Not in the immediate future.

Take advantage of today’s clean burning, diesel, and advanced technology engines. We’ve come a long way and the existing technology is efficient, readily available, and the engines can be serviced most anywhere in the world.

At least for the immediate future, existing advancements are at least 5 times more efficient than the best batteries available and remain the best options for the marine industry.

Eric  Smith, Senior Sales Consultant, Partner
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