Move over, electric cars: E-boats are coming — and investors are on board

Companies including Pure Watercraft and Arc Boats are aiming first at the small-boat sector but have visions of adapting their technologies for water taxis, ferries and larger vessels down the line.

A fishing boat outfitted with an electric Pure Outboard System (Pure Watercraft)
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Andy Rebele has spent much of his life on boats, fishing in lakes near his childhood home in San Diego and, now, cruising the waterways near his house in Seattle. He knows well that, along with serenity and outdoor beauty, boating can mean deafeningly loud growling engines, smelly exhaust and sheens of leaking fuel.

A decade ago, after seeing Tesla launch its first all-electric cars, Rebele decided to bring to the water what was just then appearing on the road: battery power. He formed the company Pure Watercraft to design boating systems that can ply rivers and lakes without leaving trails of pollution in their wake. Last month, the electric boat startup took a significant step toward scaling that vision when General Motors acquired a 25 percent stake, an investment worth $150 million.

Our mission is to enable a new era in boating,” Rebele told Canary Media by video call, his background a blue vision of Lake Washington. 

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The e-boat sector is abuzz

Pure Watercraft is among a growing number of startups working to electrify fishing boats, day cruisers and other types of gas-guzzling watercraft. 

Arc Boat Company, whose team includes former SpaceX engineers, recently raised $30 million in venture capital financing to build its first production run of luxury power boats in Los Angeles. Last week, Silicon Valley startup Navier signed a deal with a Maine boatbuilder to deliver the first of its all-electric yachts by 2023. Swedish boatbuilder Candela released its C-8 electric hydrofoil vessel earlier this fall.

The e-boat buzz builds on several broader developments in the world of watercraft. As the pandemic has driven people to spend more time outside, U.S. sales of new boats reached record highs in 2020 and this year, according to the National Marine Manufacturers Association. All told, nearly 12 million registered recreational vessels bob in marinas and boatyards nationwide.

Globally, policymakers are adopting stronger measures to curb greenhouse gas emissions and toxic air pollution from the maritime sector — which contributes nearly 3 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions every year. Shipping companies are investing billions of dollars in cleaner fuels and technologies, including lithium-ion batteries. In Norway, hundreds of passenger and car ferries now run partly or entirely on electricity as they navigate the country’s fjords. Bigger vessels such as tankers, freighters and cruise ships are using batteries to run their onboard electricity systems.

Recreational boat engines represent a relatively tiny slice — less than 1 percent — of transportation-related emissions in the United States. Cars and light-duty trucks, by contrast, account for nearly 58 percent of the total. But electrifying boats can help reduce the smog-forming pollutants and fuel leaks that more immediately affect boaters and the local environment. 

And smaller vessels making shorter trips can be good first candidates” to begin developing the zero-emissions technologies needed to clean up larger, long-distance ships, said Elise Georgeff, an associate researcher at the International Council on Clean Transportation in Washington, D.C.

Electric boat startups say that, in addition to selling pricey personal watercraft, they also plan to scale their systems for use in water taxis, ferries and other commercial vessels.

Pure Watercraft is part of GM’s holistic approach” to EVs 

To start, though, Rebele said Pure Watercraft is focusing on electrifying fishing and pontoon boats. The company’s core technology is an outboard motor system, the type of self-contained propulsion unit used on most small boats. 

Pure Watercraft’s electric outboards include the motor itself, one or two lithium-ion batteries, the battery charger and the throttle, which controls speed. A system with one 9-kilowatt-hour battery sells online for $14,500, plus a $2,000 charger, and can be fitted to new and existing boats. (An equivalent gas-powered motor would typically cost about $8,000 to install.) The company also offers an entire electric vessel — a tiny rigid inflatable boat, which people use to zip between their yachts and the shore — that sells for $29,000.

Pure Watercraft partnered with Highfield Boats to install electric outboard motors on rigid inflatable boats, including this Highfield Classic Deluxe 380. (Pure Watercraft)

The electric motor system packs the equivalent punch of a traditional 50-horsepower outboard. Put another way, the motor can reach top speeds of up to 25 miles per hour — though a boat going that fast will only have about an hour’s worth of battery range. Slow-cruising pontoons with one battery can putter around for a few hours before needing to recharge. Rebele said a half-charged battery takes about 90 minutes to fully charge using a 240-volt outlet.

The Seattle startup is just beginning to deliver its outboard motors to a handful of customers. He said the partnership with General Motors will allow Pure Watercraft to more efficiently scale its supply chain and manufacturing processes. 

Together, the companies will produce an array of electric alternatives for the marine industry,” Mark Lubin, a spokesperson for General Motors, said in an emailed statement. He said he couldn’t comment on the companies’ specific products just yet, but said the collaboration reflects the holistic approach” needed for the widespread adoption of electric vehicles. The Detroit auto giant is investing $35 billion in electric and autonomous vehicle technology through 2025, including work to reduce battery costs and improve performance.

Arc’s luxury $300,000 e-boat could hit the water next spring

Arc is taking a different approach to electrifying watercraft. 

The California company is building sleek speed boats with a 475-horsepower motor and a staggering sticker price of $300,000.

Earlier this month, construction began on its first production boat, following a series of prototype tests at Lake Piru in Southern California. The 24-foot Arc One will have 200 kilowatt-hours of battery capacity — more than twice the capacity of a new Tesla Model S sedan — using an inboard motor design. The bigger battery size is needed to deliver bursts of power to push through water resistance and drag, enabling the boat to skim on the surface at speeds of up to 40 miles per hour, according to the company.

The Arc One electric speedboat (Arc Boats)

The startup expects to deliver the first vessel in April, with up to two dozen Arc One boats to follow, said Ted Herringshaw, Arc’s head of product. He said the company is targeting a premium” segment in order to help fund further stages of technology and manufacturing development.

Arc is trying to electrify all waterborne vessels, so right now, that means focusing on a fairly specific niche of that market,” he said. Anything that’s putting gas into the water today, we think there’s a pretty good argument to make that electric.”

Small vessels are a gateway” to cleaner shipping

Ferries are another market segment where electrification is poised to take off. 

In the United States and its territories, some 750 ferries carry people and cars over rivers and lakes and between islands. Nearly all of these vessels burn diesel or gasoline, often using older engines that are inefficient. Their constant concentrated exhaust can pose significant health threats to the waterfront communities the ferries serve, said Georgeff of the International Council on Clean Transportation. 

Cities across the U.S. are now considering whether to replace or retrofit their diesel ferries with battery power. A few places have already made the switch. In 2019, the electric Gee’s Bend Ferry began making five daily round trips across the Alabama River. Public officials reportedly decided to replace the vessel’s original diesel engines with batteries after the engines repeatedly broke down, disrupting service. The 95-foot vessel now uses two 135-kilowatt-hour batteries, which take about 25 minutes to charge every other stop. 

Yet despite the allure of battery-powered boating, switching to an all-electric model isn’t a straightforward choice for individual boat owners or ferry operators. The upfront expense would stop most prospective buyers in their tracks, even with the promise of lower maintenance and energy costs. The bigger the vessel, the more battery packs it needs to carry, limiting the boat’s speed and reducing the number of people or cars that can fit on board. Also, marinas and ferry slips will need to upgrade their onshore grid infrastructure to account for the extra demand from charging batteries. 

Still, if owners and technology developers can overcome the hurdles, electrifying boats and ferries could make a significant dent in the nation’s fossil fuel use and related pollution. In Washington state, which operates the nation’s largest ferry system, ferries burn more diesel than any other mode of transportation, at more than 18 million gallons every year. Registered recreational boats in the U.S. annually consume nearly 1.4 million gallons of gasoline — roughly the same amount of gas sold in New Hampshire in 2020, according to federal data.

Electric ferries have other advantages beyond demonstrating the technology, Georgeff said. They capture people’s attention in ways that cargo ships do not. The general public is more likely to board a ferry than an ocean-crossing freighter, lending greater visibility and potential support to the cause of cleaner shipping. Ferries are a gateway,” she said.

Maria Gallucci is a clean energy reporter at Canary Media, where she covers hard-to-decarbonize sectors and efforts to make the energy transition more affordable and equitable.