The boating industry has been using renewable energy since 4000 BCE. I am referring, of course, to sailboats used first by the Phoenicians and Egyptians. For many thousands of years sails and paddles where the only mechanisms for powering a boat. In the mid 19th century the internal combustion engine (ICE), the electric motor and the steam engine were becoming viable and practical technologies.
Much like automobiles there were steam-powered, ICE, and electric boats being developed at this time. In 1839, a Russian by the name of Moritz von Jacobi created the first electric boat, which traveled at 3 mph. Since, several versions of electric boats were developed. However much like automobiles, boating went a different way. Steamboats were very popular for a time until the ICE was developed further and became the dominant source of power for boating.
Moritz von Jacobi 1856
This was the case until the submarine became a more viable technology. The electric motor, through trial and error, proved to be the most practical form of power for submerged propulsion. Because of it’s inherent lack of emissions and because it does not require oxygen to function, electric power for underwater travel made the most sense. Many, many types of submarine had been conceived of and developed since the late 16th century however a system which could switch between a diesel-powered engine for surface travel and an electric engine when submerged made the submarine much more practical for warfare. The US Navy bought the first submarine to perfect this use of the electric motor and ICE combination in 1900. It was developed by John Philip Holland.
USS Holland dry docked
The submarine sparked something of an international naval arms race and changed the face of naval warfare forever. All of which would not have been possible without the electric motor. Today nuclear power is used for military submarines, but as battery technology progresses electric power will become a viable alternative. Nuclear power poses great environmental risks should something go wrong, or should a submarine sink during warfare. Not to mention the waste produced by the use of nuclear energy is not disposable nor is it good for the environment.
Boats offer a great format for electric power. They can be large and therefore house large batteries. Their size also lends them to solar power as they have a large surface to place many panels on. Another important factor is the use of sails. A common practice for boating, especially for large vessels, is to switch between sail and engine power when necessary. Because of solar panels and sails, range anxiety is not a factor for the electric boating industry.
Range anxiety, an issue facing the EV industry, is a fear of losing power mid-trip. EVs cannot travel as far on one battery as their ICE counterparts can on one tank of gas. This issue combined with a noticeable lack of charging stations leads to doubts in consumer’s minds. This is not an issue for electric boats, especially those with sails, or solar panels. In fact a solar-powered boat can outlast any ICE boat as it merely needs the sun to charge, whereas if a gas-powered boat runs out of gas there is no way to refuel.
In 2012 Raphael Domjan circumnavigated the globe in a boat propelled only by solar power. The trip took 585 days and was achieved by the “Tûranor”, the world’s largest solar-powered boat, which cost $15 million to build. The boat recently crossed the Atlantic and has been touring major cities along the east coast of the United States.
Of course the ideal situation will be to one day have battery and electric motor technology that outperforms ICEs but until that day electric boating provides a perfect forum to utilize and advance EV technology.