Electric boats cheap to run, environmentally friendly and interest in them is growing

Electric boats cheap to run, environmentally friendly and interest in them is growing


As cars, scooters and bikes become increasingly electrified in Australia, there has also been a spike in interest in another category of transport – boats.

Electric boat supplier Gerd Heinen, who runs the WA branch of Eco-boats Australia, said inquiries for electric boats had doubled in recent months.

“The fuel price went up late last year and immediately that translated to a spike in enquiries,” he said.

“But not for the usual suspects, it was actually the people with high-powered boats, in the high-horsepower range, and I would say inquires doubled at least.”

Electric boat supplier Gerd Heinen said the fuel price rise led to a spike in inquiries for electric boats in WA, particularly for higher-powered boats.(ABC: Glyn Jones)

As the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions becomes a priority, many governments, including Australia’s, have flagged electric transport as a part of the solution.

But uptake of electric boats remains in its infancy in Australia, compared with other countries such as Norway and the Netherlands.

So how viable are they and what is holding them back?

Emissions, noise and maintenance virtually eliminated

In Mandurah in Western Australia, John McColl and his wife Ella own an electric boat.

“The main [benefit] for us was zero emissions and the quietness,” he said.

“It’s just magic.”

John McColl sits at boat steering wheel
John McColl is one of a small but growing number of Australians to own an electric boat.(ABC: Glyn Jones)

Mr McColl said it also costs next to nothing to run.

“The motor is basically like a fridge motor so there’s zero maintenance on that,” he said.

“The only boat maintenance is the painting of the antifouling.

Boat in Mandurah canal
John and Ella McColl’s boat Electrica is charged on solar power.(ABC)

Having bought his first electric boat in 2018, the McColl’s are considered early adopters.

Across the country, just 979 boats in Australia are registered as having an electric engine, according to data provided by the Department of Transport in each state.

They account for just 0.1 per cent of all registered boats.

Victoria has the highest number of electric boats at 474, up from 239 in 2016.

Western Australia has also had a big increase, with 100 electric boats registered in 2022, up from 11 in 2016.

Graph showing number of electric boats in each state in 2016 and 2022
According to data from the Department of Transport in each state, Victoria has the highest number of electric boats with 474 registered, up from 239 in 2016.(ABC)

However, data is patchy, as not all states require engine type to be registered.

In the Northern Territory, it is not a requirement to register a boat.

How much does an electric boat cost?

Mr McColl’s boat is built for running on inland and smooth waters at a gentle pace of 5-6 knots — considered perfect for electric propulsion.

But experts say electric propulsion is not as practical or affordable for all boats.

A drone shot of the Mandurah marina
Much, but not all, of Australia’s boating is done in an open ocean environment, requiring higher power and more fuel.(ABC)

The cost of buying or converting to electric depends on how big the boat is, how fast you want to go and for how many hours you want to run it.

Mr Heinen said they had a general rule of thumb that for every horsepower (hp) it would cost about $1,000.

He said the majority of sales were for people operating on smooth or inshore waters, all in the range of up to 30 hp.

“So for people running around in dinghies doing the fishing thing, for them electric population is perfect,” he said.

“Also for the people who are running around in smaller boats without the need for high speed and long drive time and don’t want to speed like hell, or for people with boats with a second means of population, like sailboats.”

A drone photo of the Mandurah waterfront
Electric boats are currently best suited to smooth and inshore waters.(ABC)

Mr Heinen said electric propulsion started to get very expensive for boats over 40 hp, such as power boats, especially when used offshore.

He said this was largely because of the massive battery banks needed.

“So the battery bank has three limiting factors: one is the price and one is the storage space and the third is the weight,” he said.

“The boat must be capable of bearing the load and the size of the battery bank.”

Higher uptake abroad thanks to government incentives

With most of Australia’s boating done in an open ocean environment, this is likely to be a factor in the small uptake.

It differs from European counties, where boating is prominent on sheltered inland waterways.

But Mr Heinen said government policy and incentives also played a role, which was why other countries were further ahead.

It is a view shared by Lynette Johnson, the managing director of EClass Outboard, in the New South Wales coastal town of Kiama.

The company is Australia’s only manufacturer of electric outboard motors.

Lynelle Johnson beside an electric motor
Lynelle Jonson says government policy and incentives have important roles to play.(ABC: Justin Huntsdale)

“So in Amsterdam, the municipal government has decided to get all combustion engines off the canals in the next four years,” she said.

“And they have had subsidies.

“Even in New Zealand, they have a particular fund for marine electrification.”

But she said battery manufacturing in Australia would also help.

“Because we have a huge amount of boating and we have a huge maritime reputation.”

In May, Labor promised to provide $100 million for a battery manufacturing precinct in regional Queensland if it won the federal election.

Inevitable decarbonization

It is not just leisure boats that are being converted away from diesel.

Overall, there are close to 6,000 commercial ships currently running on alternative fuels or battery-hybrid, according to data from maritime advisory DNV.

Most of these use scrubbers – a machine that offers partial cleaning of the pollutants that result from burning fossil fuels.

David Carter at Catalonos fish market
Austral Fisheries chief executive David Carter says the maritime industry must find a way to move away from fossil fuels, but technology remains a barrier.(ABC: Tyne Logan)

Chief executive of Perth-based Austral Fisheries David Carter said the need to decarbonise within the fishing industry was important.

“We pride ourselves in operating sustainable fisheries and we know a lot about target species and ecosystems,” he said.

Austral Fisheries already owns and operates a hybrid diesel and battery-powered vessel, the only one of its kind in Australia.

Hybrid Electric fishing boat
Austral Fisheries spent about $50 million on its first hybrid electric fishing vessel, Cape Arkona.(Supplied: Austral Fisheries)

But he said technology was still a barrier in going fully renewable on the larger, offshore vessels.

“The easy fix for shorter trips, day boats is a battery-electric solution,” he said.

“The more difficult fix is ​​the renewable energy sources, whether it be compressed or liquid, ammonia making sure its green, and perhaps biofuels.”

Two men painting a boat at dock.
Austral Fisheries chief executive David Carter says it is important the fishing industry looks at ways to decarbonise.(Supplied )

Mr Carter said the company was actively looking for solutions and was currently involved in a joint project with the Fisheries Research and Development Corporation to try to electrify one of their boats running out of Darwin.

There is confidence rapid evolvement in the renewable and battery industry will see significant changes in the near future.

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