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Electric Boats Make Emission-free Sea Travel a Reality

Electric boat
Electric boats are becoming increasingly popular due to the desire for reduced pollution and noise, and the promise of cheaper operation and easier maintenance. Pure Watercraft

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During the work week, Baltimore-area resident Craig Gordon is the principal architect of cloud strategy for an electric utility company. On the weekends, he engages in his passion of competitive bass fishing.

But you won't find Gordon in a boat with a loud, pollution-emitting gasoline-powered outboard motor. Instead, Gordon propels his boat with a high-tech electric outboard motor sold by Seattle-based startup company Pure Watercraft, which he says convinced him to buy with its lightweight, long-lasting, low-maintenance lithium-ion batteries and its powerful motor.

Using electric propulsion enables Gordon to fish in local reservoirs, where gas-powered motors aren't allowed. "It is also cheaper, cleaner, more convenient and involves less maintenance than dealing with gas rigs," he explains in an email. "You can run, fish and compete for pennies on the dollar."

In recent years, electric propulsion for boats has been growing in popularity, motivated by both a desire to reduce pollution and noise, and by the technology's promise of being cheaper to operate and easier to maintain. U.S. sales of electric outboard motors are expected to nearly double over the next five years, from $63 million in sales this year to $120 million in 2024, according to data released in June by the firm Industry Research.

In another sign of electric propulsion's rising prominence, when teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg arrived in New York harbor in summer 2019 after sailing across the Atlantic, her sailboat was met and assisted to its berth by boats propelled with electric motors produced by Torqeedo, a major manufacturer of the technology.

Electric Propulsion Technology Has Existed Since the 1830s

Electric propulsion for boats actually dates back to the late 1830s, when an inventor named Boris Semonovitch Iakobi outfitted a 24-foot (7.5-meter) naval sloop with a motor that drew electricity from a battery pack to turn paddle wheels. The Elekrokhod, as the craft was renamed, did a test on the Neva River, as recounted in Kevin Desmond's book "Electric Boats and Ships: A History." Others improved the technology. Electric boats increased in popularity in the late 1800s, and were even featured at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, where visitors paid 25 cents for rides in electric-powered launches.

But, just as the rise of the gasoline-powered internal combustion engine pushed early electric automobiles out of the picture, petroleum-fueled pleasure boats became the standard on the water as well.

Nevertheless, electric propulsion never totally went away, as evidenced by this 1975 "Popular Mechanics" article touting the advantages of "boating without buying gasoline."

But soaring prices at the pump were just one of the drawbacks of petroleum-powered outboard motors. By the late 20th century, pleasure boats propelled by outboard motors were consuming 1.6 billion gallons (6 billion liters) of fuel a year and emitting massive amounts of pollution into the atmosphere. Those traditional motors were highly inefficient, with 20 to 30 percent of their fuel passing unburned or only partially burned through the combustion chamber and being emitted directly into the air and water, according to the website of the environmental group Sailors for the Sea. Running one of those outboard motors for an hour released the same amount of smog-producing pollution as driving a car for 800 miles (1,287 kilometers).

Tougher emission standards, phased in from 1998 to 2006 by the U.S Environmental Protection Agency, compelled manufacturers to develop cleaner gasoline-powered outboard motors. But even with less pollution, boaters still were subjected to unhealthy levels of noise.

Those problems quickly became apparent to Pure Watercraft founder Andy Rebele, a former college competitive rower and coach, who went on to start an internet auction company and become an angel investor, when he decided some years ago to buy a recreational boat. To his dismay, the gasoline-powered outboard motor turned out to be loud and unreliable. "Basically, all the pain points of boats are related to gas propulsion," he says.

Electric boat
A powerboat fitted out with the Pure Watercraft electric-propulsion motor.
Pure Watercraft

Rebele decided that he wanted to go electric instead, but discovered that the then-available options were capable of reaching speeds of only 5 miles per hour (8 kilometers per hour). "I thought, how come a Tesla can go 120 miles an hour?" Rebele recalls. "The electric propulsion boat companies didn't have any answers, but I knew it had to be possible."

Rebele founded Pure Watercraft in 2011 and then spent several years developing a system that includes high-performance batteries coupled with a powerful, lightweight motor and controller, piggybacking on technological advances developed for electric cars. In contrast, "gas powered motor companies are using byproducts of the car industry of the 1950s," he says.

Pure Watercraft delivered its first units to customers in September 2019. The system costs $14,500 for the batteries and motor, plus another $2,000 for a charging device. With the Pure Watercraft motor, a typical boat, like a fishing boat or a rigid inflatable, will run at about 25 miles per hour (40 kilometers per hour), Rebele says. The motor also has been designed to be as quiet as possible, though once wind and waves are factored in, it's almost impossible to create a totally silent boat.

Burning Gasoline Emits CO2

There's tremendous pollution-reducing potential in switching to electric outboard motors. After all, every gallon of gasoline that's burned puts 20 pounds (9 kilograms) of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, according to the U.S. government's Fueleconomy.gov website. Of course, even switching to electric propulsion won't completely eliminate a boat's carbon footprint, unless the batteries are charged with electricity generated by renewable sources that don't burn any fossil fuels.

And as Rebele notes, electric propulsion also reduces other types of pollution from outboard motors that are harmful to health and the environment. One of Pure Watercraft's early customers, a northern California rowing association, plans to replace the gasoline-powered motors on its eight coaching launches. That will eliminate the same amount of non-CO2 pollution — including particulates, carbon monoxide and oxides of nitrogen that play a role in the formation of smog and acid rain — as taking 1,000 automobiles off the roads.

Another advantage of electric outboard motors is that they can be used to update existing boats. In this video from the American Society of Naval Engineers, aPure Watercraft outboard motor is used to power a mahogany craft built back in 1929.

This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.

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