As electric boats push off, where does Canada stand?
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Feb 11, 2020
Luke Sarabia

Both passenger ferries and pleasure crafts are beginning to electrify across Canada. As the sector comes to life, there is still much that can be done by forward minded policy leaders and investors

BC Ferries’ hybrid ferry. Source: BC Ferries

Both passenger ferries and pleasure crafts are beginning to electrify across Canada. As the sector comes to life, the moment is still opportune for forward minded policy leaders and investors

In late November of 2019, Ports Toronto announced that the ferry that transports passengers to the Billy Bishop Airport island airport, the Marilyn Bell I, is to be converted to electric power. The retrofit, which is estimated to be completed by late 2020, will make it the first fully battery electric-powered ferry service in Canada. The conversion from the ferry’s current bio-fuel power to renewable electricity, supplied by Bullfrog Power, is expected to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 530 tonnes.

Although the 90-second ride to and from mainland Toronto is among the world’s shortest ferry routes, it’s a little sign of big things to come in Canada.  

Mainstream media coverage of the rise of electric road vehicles is at an all-time high, with awareness increasing daily. But what is the progress of electrification in the nautical world? And where does Canada stand?

The electrification of boats holds the potential for serious environmental and economic benefit. As is the case with electric cars, the issue of air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions is eliminated due to the lack of an internal combustion engine. The lack of required maintenance and obviously lesser fuel costs also contribute to a lower price of operation than many traditional boats.  

Take Norway’s Ampere, the world’s first fully electric ferry, for example. Still one of the largest of its kind in the world, the ferry began covering six-kilometer journey across the Sognefjord, the largest fjord in Norway, in 2015. By 2016, the Ampere was found to have cut emissions by 95 per cent and costs by 80 per cent compared to its fuel-powered counterparts. Fjellstrand, the team behind the Ampere, reportedly faced a backlog of 53 electric vessel orders following its success.

Fjellstrand's Ampere, the first battery-electric ferry
The Ampere electric ferry
Source: Fjellstrand

The Scandinavian country has since announced a plan to make their famous fjords a fully zero-emission zone by 2026. The fjords are a popular destination for tour boats; nearly 180 cruise ships reportedly visited the fjord of Geiranger in 2015 alone.

Marine vehicles are no small part of Canada’s economy either; 41,700 powerboats were sold in 2018, at a 7 per cent increase from the previous year. There are also 173 operational ferry routes throughout the country. As such, the potential impact which electrification could have on the nation, in terms of reduced emissions and costs saved, would be significant.

Ferries go electric

Toronto’s Billy Bishop ferry isn’t the first widely used Canadian vessel to go electric. The limited routes of ferries make their electrification relatively simple; recharging can be planned into daily schedules to allow for minimal interruptions.

British Columbia recently announced the $200 million purchase of four electric-hybrid ferries set to join its Island Class fleet in 2022, joining two other of their kind scheduled to become operational this year. All six of the boats are being built by Netherlands-based Damen Shipyards Group. The first of the two newly purchased ferries arrived in Victoria just last month.

The new ferries are expected to service three routes — Campbell River-Quadra Island, Nanaimo Harbour-Gabriola Island and either Powell River-Texada Island or the Port McNeill-Alert Bay-Sointula Island. They will be delivered with 800 kWh of battery energy storage capacity, and can be upgraded up to 2,000 kWh.

BC Ferries' incoming electric boat. Source: BC Ferries
Source: BC Ferries

“These next four Island Class ships are a major step in our plan to progressively lower emissions across the fleet and be a leader in the energy transition to a lower carbon future,” said Captain Jamie Marshall, BC Ferries’ vice-president, business development and innovation, of the purchase of the boats.

Although the boats are hybrids, BC ferries says it expects that as charging technology “matures to make electricity available in the quantities required,” it expects to convert them to all-electric.

In 2018, the Ontario government ordered two fully electric ferries for use to transit passengers to Wolfe and Amherst Island, both of which are near Kingston. The Amherst Island ferry, which will hold 300 passengers, is expected this year; the 399-passenger Wolfe Island ferry should be delivered in 2021.

The ferries, also purchased from Damen, are the result of $94 million of funding from the government of Ontario, and over $31 million from the federal government. Over their 60 year lifespans, the vessels are expected to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by the equivalent of 446 million kilograms of carbon dioxide.

Since 2017, Ottawa Boat Cruise has also operated a tour of Rideau Canal in the nation’s capital on a 100-passenger partially solar-powered electric boat. At the time, it was advertised as the largest electric passenger vessel in North America.

Finally, the Quyon Ferry is a battery-electric powered ferry which brings passengers and cars back and forth across the Ottawa River between Québec and Ontario. The ferry, which closes for the winter, uses 14 3,400-pound batteries to propel itself across a cable stretching across the river.

Plug in at the cottage

There is also an increasing range of options for Canadians looking to buy electric boats for personal and recreational use.

Last summer, Montreal-based Taiga Motors unveiled the Orca, an electric jet ski-style personal watercraft. Its top speed of 104 kilometres per hour  accompanied by its silent engine “takes [riding] from being more of a motorsport to being an outdoor sport,”Taiga co-founder and CEO Samuel Bruneau told Electric Autonomy Canada.

Taiga Orca electric personal watercraft
Taiga Motors’ Orca

An initial run of 500 Orca vehicles are being delivered to consumers this year, which will be followed by international sales shortly after. According to its founders, legacy combustion engine boat manufacturers have approached them to supply battery and propulsion technology for their own as-of-yet unannounced electric products.

Also in September of last year, Bombardier Recreational Products unveiled a number of electric concept vehicles, one of which was a battery-powered version of its classic Sea-Doo. The vehicles, however, remain “preliminary concepts as we are currently evaluating market viability” says Denys Lapointe, Senior Vice President, Design, Innovation and Creative Services at BRP. As such, there are no technical specifications by which to compare them to vehicles such as the Orca.

Beau Lake's Tahoe - 14 electric boat Source: Beau Lake
Beau Lake’s Tahoe – 14 electric boat Source: Beau Lake

Canadian Electric Boat Company, based out of Boisbriand, Québec, has sold electric boats which it markets as “zero-emission, waveless and noiseless” since 1995. Its lineup of four passenger boats use motors from Torqeedo, a German motor manufacturer. Its fastest model, the Bruce 22, uses a 100 kWh motor and is capable of a top speed of 65.9 kilometres per hour.

Another player in the market of electric pleasure crafts is Beau Lake, a Canadian electric boat manufacturer named after a lake which straddles the border of Quebec and Maine. They offer two vintage-inspired electric boat models, in addition to pedal boats and paddleboards. With a built-in cooler and charcuterie board as well optional Bluetooth speakers, Beau Lake’s luxury boats are primarily geared towards the upmarket cottage crowd.

Despite the number of initiatives electrifying aquatic vehicles across the country, there is still a long way to go before internal combustion engines disappear from our waterways. The success of what has come so far, however, should continue to speak for itself as more manufacturers and consumers consider undertaking the important transition.

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