By Bruce Claflin, Scuttlebutt Magazine

Alternative power in boating is as much a part of our past as it may be a large part of our future. The concept is not new. Electric boats have been in existence since the late 1800’s, and it wasn’t until the 1920’s that they were largely supplanted by internal combustion engines like those developed in the automotive world. In fact, the world of boating has been a regular beneficiary of the creation of new technology in the automotive sector. To be sure, the boating industry has been taking advantage of all things auto born for many years. Everything from power, design, safety, and most notably in providing the same creature comforts on the water that we have been enjoying over the years while in our cars. The latest trends in the automotive world might lead us to believe that the future of boating may take us back to boats powered at least in part, by electricity.

Hybrids are already on the scene. Solar power has shown significant improvement in efficiency and battery life, making it a potential contender as well. While the automotive world seems to have shifted its focus to the driverless automobile initiatives, that concept seems far off from the boating world. However, even as I write this, there are announcements that companies globally are already actively creating functional prototypes of pilotless planes. If the leaders in the automotive sector say that we are less than a decade away from everyday use of driverless cars, and airline CEOs say that pilotless planes are on a 30 year horizon, one would think that we will see “captain-less” boats somewhere in between.

Several companies have developed electrically powered boats that are being touted as “Teslas for the water”, but boaters have been reluctant to embrace these models. The same consumer barriers that existed in the automotive world are displayed in the marine world today. Resistance to change, the need for charging station availibility and confidence in the equipment chief among them. Not to mention that as boaters, we also see the need for availibility of service, parts and repair that may be required at any point on the water—regardless of where we are when the need occurs. Much, if not most of that infrastructure does not exist today, but we are moving closer.

Personally, I am not an advocate for this change. I like boating, and my boat, the way it is. My view is probably very short sighted. I prefer to stick with what I understand, what I’m comfortable with, but my gut tells me that changes are coming quickly and I should begin to prepare.

Several of the physical barriers that stand in the way of the electric boat as a mainstay are falling everyday as the technology for battery life and power generation are on an almost exponential curve. Commercial ferries have been among those taking first dives into the everyday use of electric power. Even the famous ‘Maid of the Mist” tour boats at Niagara Falls will soon be utilizing electric power to ferrry loads of passengers safely to and from their excursions to view the magnificent waterfalls there.

Norway’s Yara Birkeland, billed as the World’s first electric, zero emissions cargo ship.

In Norway, they have already launched a container ship billed as the World’s first electric, zero emissions cargo ship. That ship moves cargo between several Norwegian port cities. Electric tugboats (“plugboats”) are already in operation in the Ports of Los Angeles and Houston (and maybe others), moving huge cargo ships in and out of harbor while creating immense savings to the container ship industry.

There are currently over 100 companies offering electric vessels to consumers, with very many more in development. Today you can completely retro-fit almost any boat to electric power. More companies providing the service are undoubtedly on the way. Given that, how long can it be before they become a common sight on the water, at Boat Shows, and in showrooms everywhere?

As with all things, time will tell. The green initiatives are growing, as is the need for efficiency driven by plain economics. We won’t pretend to know when they will emerge as a factor in the marketplace but we do know that the market is huge, and that’s just here in the U.S.. As has been the case with the growth curve of most new technology recently, we believe it will be sooner that we think. On the upside, their arrival will certainly alleviate our concerns over ethanol based fuels in marine engines and they probably won’t make our time on the water any less enjoyable than it is today.