Electric boats are slowly taking off in Maine
On a calm morning on the Cousins River in Yarmouth, Nick Planson unplugs an extension cord running down the dock to his 14 foot Carolina Skiff, hops aboard, turns on the motor, and starts down the river.
“We’re just puttering here at 2 and a half knots down the Cousins River towards where it meets the Royal River," Planson says. "A seal keeps surfacing, because there's definitely some fish jumping this morning.”
Planson doesn't have to shout over the noise of the outboard. It’s powered by batteries. And it’s very quiet.
“And even if I accelerate a bit, you’re not hearing much noise," Planson says. "Such a great change over what would be even for a small gas motor, it would be noisy and smelly and there would be oil dripping into the water.”
The Maine coastline is home to many workboats with chugging diesel engines and whining outboards, but electrification is slowly making its way out onto the water. The new designs are nearly silent, and don’t directly burn fossil fuels. But advocates of the technology say the coming challenge will be to persuade commercial mariners to make the switch to battery power.
Planson, who sells electric motors at The Boat Yard in Yarmouth, says the technology is advancing quickly. For now, he thinks it's best suited for people working in aquaculture, such as oyster farmers.
“So if you go full speed, it will go for about an hour, " he says. "But if you’re puttering around your farm, it’ll go all day.”
The cost of the electric systems is significant–perhaps $3,000 to $5,000 for a 20 horsepower motor, another $3,000 to $5,000 for each battery, plus $1,000 or $2,000 for a charger. But maintenance costs are lower, Planson says, and fuel costs far lower.
Still other electric boat proponents say while the industry is evolving rapidly, it will take some time to penetrate the market.
Lia Morris of the Island Institute in Rockland says to move electrification forward, consumers need to first see the battery powered vessels in action before they can fully embrace them.
“The Island Institute goal is to try and have 100 electric boats across the coast of Maine by 2025," Morris says. “How can we seed some of these boats across the coast of Maine, so that they start to influence, and people understand that the technology is in fact there, and it's developing rapidly.”
To that end, Morris says the Island Institute is providing grants to help defray the cost of the boats. Most recently it awarded a $2000 grant to the Kennebunk River Harbor Master.
Advocates acknowledge that it will be a while before larger working vessels, such as lobster boats, are routinely electrified. It's hard to pack enough batteries on board to compete with tanks full of diesel.
In the meantime, innovators continue to tweak electric outboard technology to make it even more sustainable.
Piloting his electric-powered boat down the Harraseeket River in Freeport, Alex Abbott says the range is highly variable. "This boat has a fantastic range if you go slowly, and if you’re not going against too much wind and tide," Abbott says. "We could probably go 50 miles at very slow speeds.”
It's a 23-foot custom wooden vessel that he bought to replace his aging Boston Whaler, which was powered by a 90-horsepower gas engine. Abbott says at top speed, about 10-knots, he can only go about 15 miles.
"Which is great for a lot of places in Casco Bay," he says. "But it still brings into question the capacity and whether or not it works for most people for most of their uses.”
Abbott also had a solar array installed on the T-top canopy. That provides just enough juice to charge the three batteries in about a week, which works well for his weekend trips. But he says it can also provide some power while underway.
After planning along at 8 knots or so, Abbott throttles the boat way back.
“I’m now using less power to run the boat than the solar panels are putting in, but I’m only going a couple of knots," Abbott says. "So clearly this array of solar panels that I have is not going to be enough to run the boat except at extremely slow speeds, perhaps in kind of an emergency, and only if you have solar power.”
For today, it’s a slow boat on Casco Bay, moving quietly under solar power. But Alex Abbott, and other believers say it’s also a forerunner of many more electric boats to come.