Electric Boats: As In Cars, Battery Power Offers Advantages On The Water

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The world now has something around half a million plug-in electric cars on the roads, and electric propulsion is slowly spreading into other types of transportation.

One of them is electric boats, which have been around for more than a century but are now seeing renewed interest.

Just as with automobiles at the turn of the last century, battery-powered electric boats competed with steam launches and even a few rackety, dangerous, crude motorboats with internal-combustion engines.

Then gasoline and diesel fuel won.

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Elco Motor Yachts - 1941 Cruisette 'Green Machine' electric boat

Elco Motor Yachts - 1941 Cruisette 'Green Machine' electric boat

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Electric-boat renaissance

Today, with the cost of lithium-ion batteries falling steadily and marine enthusiasts slowly starting to understand the benefits of electric propulsion, several manufacturers of boats and powertrains see opportunity in boats using electric motors to turn their propellers.

A report issued last year by IDtechEx, Electric Boats, Small Submarines and Autonomous Underwater Vehicles 2013-2023, suggests that the market for electric boats is growing rapidly. Estimated at $2.6 billion currently, the report projects that it will grow by 150 percent by 2023, to $6.3 billion.

In late June, we were able to sample electric-boat technology first-hand, by spending a pleasant half-day with executives from Elco Motor Yachts on the clear waters of Lake George, New York.

The company is the latest incarnation of an enterprise that's been around for more than a century, having built a variety of electric and gasoline boats throughout the first half of the last century.

It's now been restarted and recast as a provider of electric powertrains for marine uses.

Elco Motor Yachts - 1941 Cruisette 'Green Machine' electric boat

Elco Motor Yachts - 1941 Cruisette 'Green Machine' electric boat

Enlarge Photo

Two showboats

Elco's executives showed off two of the boats owned by the company and used to demonstrate the benefits of electric propulsion on the water.

One was built more than a century ago; the other is a mere 73 years old. Both are electrically powered, and entirely suitable for their duties on the heavily recreational lake south of the Adirondack State Park.

Our first ride was in what Elco calls its "Green Machine," a 34-foot Elco Cruisette built in 1941. It's been completely renovated and repowered, and serves as a showcase for the company's EP-7000 electric marine motor.

The motor is visible through a glass plate in the floorboards, and the 42 kilowatt-hour lead-acid battery pack gives enough range for the Cruisette to cover the 65-mile round trip to the end of Lake George and back at speeds up to 8.5 knots without recharging.

That motor is the second most powerful of the six currently on offer from Elco, which range from the EP-600 (putting out 2 to 8 horsepower) to the EP-10000, rated at an output of 75 to 125 hp and suitable for boats up to 50 feet long.

Prices for inboard motors start at $7,520 for the EP-600, which includes not only the motor itself but also the charger and the various components to fit it into the craft. (It does not include the battery pack, however.)

Elco offers makes electric outboard motors; these start at $2,910 for the smallest EP-5 model.

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1890s electric motor

The company also runs a second boat, the Wenona. She's a 32-foot electric launch, built by Elco in 1899, and recently renovated. The original Elco motor is still intact and functioning, though the batteries have been replaced.

The Wenona provides a cruising range of fully 122 miles--albeit at a stately 6 miles per hour, perfectly adequate for a launch intended to provide elegant transport from shore to yacht, or conveyance among lake attractions.

Elco Motor Yachts - 1899 'Wenona' launch - electric boat

Elco Motor Yachts - 1899 'Wenona' launch - electric boat

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Both boats ran smoothly, comfortably, and with essentially none of the noise that accompanies any combustion-engined motorboat these days, from personal watercraft to big powerboats.

Seeking silence on the lake

And that's part of the attraction of electric boats: They're all but silent, with the lapping the waves against the hull as loud as any noise from the powertrain.

Ironically, the rise of affordable personal watercraft--sometimes known as Jet-Skis--has led to a backlash against the proliferation of fast, cheap, and remarkably noisy marine craft.

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