Electric Boats Are Coming Sooner Than You Think

From Buenos Aires to Belfast to Bangkok, newly electrified ferries and tour boats (and even a few cruise ships) are changing the way we set sail.

The Maid of the Mist boat by Niagara Falls

Commuter routes, cruises, and boat trips at popular spots like Niagara Falls are all being electrified.

Courtesy of Maid of the Mist

As the broader transportation sector looks to meet pressing decarbonization goals via the pursuit of greener alternative energy, the maritime industry has been no exception. And with on-tap battery-electric technology that’s already proven successful on land, a new breed of electric boats and ships is likewise emerging. For travelers, this move to EV technology is of particular interest as the first wave of global commuter ferries and tour boats goes electric in cities like San Francisco, Stockholm, Lisbon, and others.

“I see electrification as being impactful for short routes and smaller vessels,” explains Elise Sturrup, a marine researcher at the nonprofit International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT). She notes that smaller “harbor craft”—like ferries, tugs, and other service vessels—which cover shorter spans and regularly frequent ports like New York City or Oslo (affording ongoing access to charging points) are particularly well-suited to the technology. Plus, she says, ship electrification reduces air pollution and its devastating health effects on those living and working in portside communities (an issue that’s been particularly problematic in heavily trafficked ports like Barcelona and Rome).

Electric motors also reduce pollutants into sensitive waterways and eliminate the risk of oil spills. Plus, they provide a smoother, fume-free, and virtually noise-free ride, which is an upgraded experience for guests and crews aboard. In addition, the quietness is “extremely beneficial for sound-dependent marine fauna like whales,” says Sturrup, of heightened importance in ports serving both whale- and ship-heavy seas, such as in Alaska or New England.

However, larger and heavier mega-cruise ships (as well as freight vessels) that travel longer distances have proven stubbornly difficult to electrify—due largely to the limitations of existing battery technology. “We won’t see cross-ocean ships using pure electrification any time soon,” she says, noting that the high-energy-density battery options needed don’t yet exist. Still, some pioneering cruise ship companies, like Hurtigruten and Ponant, are finding ways to incorporate electric power in a hybrid capacity.

What seems certain is that the market for electric vessels, bolstered by demand from both commercial operators and recreational boaters, is projected for rapid growth. One market research firm found that the electric ship market value will jump by nearly 400 percent in the next 10 years, reaching a valuation of $31.48 billion by 2034.

“Electrification is essential for transitioning maritime, as well as all transportation,” says Dr. Mark Jacobson, director of the Atmosphere/Energy Program at Stanford University and author of No Miracles Needed: How Today’s Technology Can Save Our Climate and Clean Our Air. “Going forward, this will be the mode of transportation, no doubt,” he says. “Fossil fuels are on their way out.”

Pedestrians disembark a Candela commuter boat

Swedish company Candela is bringing its ferries to New Zealand and Berlin.

Courtesy of Candela

Electric ferries and tour boats to watch

Ferries offer the sweet spot for maritime electrification: smaller boats, shorter distances to cover, along with the route regularity needed to accommodate in-port charging. Europe currently dominates the e-ferry landscape, with recently launched or soon-to-launch e-ferries spanning cities from Belfast to Lisbon and beyond. But it’s Scandinavia—which has also been the global leader for adopting electric automobiles—that’s the clear front-runner.

Norway is particularly prolific, with dozens of fully electric ferries in operation, including the sleek 50-passenger “smart city” ferries in the city of Fredrikstad from newcomer Hyke; the decade-old, 350-passenger innovator, MF Ampere, which services villages along the Sognefjord; and the world’s largest all-electric passenger and car ferry—the 600-passenger Bastø Electric, which makes runs across Norway’s busiest ferry crossing, the Olso fjord.

But perhaps most notable is Swedish company Candela, which debuted its 30-passenger Candela P-12 electric hydrofoil commuter ferry in Stockholm last summer; the company has since inked deals to launch high-speed ferries in New Zealand and Berlin. Billed as the “world’s fastest electric ferries,” the boats can reach speeds of up to 35 mph.

Candela’s spokesperson Mikael Mahlberg explains that challenges have abounded with electrifying passenger vessels because they use up so much energy at high speeds. However, he says Candela’s industry-first electric hydrofoil technology allows the boats to “fly” over the water, reducing drag. “We’re not just replacing inefficient conventional diesel vessels with similarly inefficient but electric vessels,” he says. “We’re actually reinventing ships in the sense that they’re becoming much more sustainable.”

Beyond Europe, a notable e-ferry project is underway for South America: Australian e-ferry manufacturer Incat Tasmania is currently building the world’s largest electric ferry, which will shuttle up to 2,100 passengers across the River Plate (Rio Plato) between Buenos Aires, Argentina, and Colonia, Uruguay, as soon as next year. Across Asia, e-ferry fleets are emerging in Thailand and India, while China made international headlines for its 2022 debut of the Three Gorges 1, a fully battery-powered 1,300-passenger sightseeing vessel on the Yangtze River.

Sightseeing vessels and tourist ferries are also converting to electric power closer to home. Niagara Falls’ iconic Maid of the Mist replaced its two old diesel-powered tour boats with two 600-passenger electric vessels in 2020. San Francisco has been a hotbed of transition: Its main Alcatraz Island ferries went electric in 2022; next year, San Francisco Bay WETA plans to launch five battery-powered passenger ferries, when Angel Island Ferry will also transition to electric. Washington State—which operates the nation’s largest ferry system—also plans to convert its fleet to hybrid-electric by decade’s end.

A Havila cruise ship sailing among rugged green islands

Travelers on Havila ships can experience the Norwegian fjords for up to four hours on battery power alone.

Courtesy of Havila

Hybrid-electric cruise ships

The Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), which represents more than 95 percent of global cruise ships, reports that over the next five years, more than 15 percent of new cruise ships will be configured for hybrid energy, with either battery or hydrogen fuel cell capabilities. For now, as with ferries, Norway is leading the charge on cruise line experimentation with hybrid-electric power.

Norway-based adventure travel company Hurtigruten—which encompasses Norway coastal cruise line Hurtigruten and cruise expedition brand HX—has been an electric-energy pioneer. HX rolled out the world’s first battery-hybrid-powered ship, the 530-passenger MS Roald Amundsen, in 2019; its sister ship, MS Fridtjof Nansen, followed suit in 2020. Meanwhile, three of the nine 274- to 500-passenger ships in Hurtigruten’s fleet have been retrofitted with battery packs and more efficient engines, resulting in a 25 percent reduction in CO2 emissions. Plus, Hurtigruten is planning to debut a futuristic zero-emissions ship, powered by a combination of battery packs, retractable sails, and solar panels, by 2030.

Norwegian newcomer Havila Voyages, meanwhile, has four 640-guest ships that feature the largest passenger-ship batteries at sea. Itineraries are focused on the Norwegian coastline and the batteries are strong enough to let the ships sail emissions-free for up to four hours. Upscale French line Ponant, meanwhile, launched a hybrid-battery expedition ship, the 245-passenger Le Commandant Charcot, in 2021. It can sail on battery power alone for up to eight hours (the line has plans for a zero-emissions ship to debut by 2030).

Row of large, empty beige loungers in sunroom with large windows facing the water

Ponant aims to launch a zero-emissions ship by 2030.

Photo by Gilles Trillard

Why electric boats and ships are emerging now

The move to electric isn’t all voluntary: Urgent United Nations’ climate deadlines have been laid out to reach net-zero carbon emissions worldwide by 2050—just 26 years away—or risk losing access to a “livable climate.” Larger ships have traditionally been reliant on heavily polluting bunker fuel, with shipping and boating behind 2 percent of total global greenhouse gas emissions.

In accordance, the International Maritime Organization (the U.N. regulatory arm for maritime transport) has committed to slashing ships’ carbon intensity by 40 percent as soon as 2030—a goal that the CLIA has likewise pledged. Stricter local regulations are also adding pressure: In Norway, greenhouse gas-emitting ships will be banned from its environmentally sensitive World Heritage fjords as of 2026, while local ports, most recently NYC, are moving to mandate that enabled cruise ships plug into shoreside power while in port.

Meanwhile, EV technology—which has seen significant advancements in battery strength, compactness, safety, charge times, and cost-efficiency in recent years—seems well-suited to respond. “It’s a mature technology, and one that is an easier sell for government or investment funding,” says Sturrup. And funding and subsidies for electric propulsion efforts in the maritime sector have indeed increased. In the United States, for instance, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law has recently rolled out grants for electric ferry innovations—money that is already trickling into projects in places like NYC, for example, where plans are now underway to fully electrify a city ferry to Governors Island.

The downside of electric boats and ships

However, the technology is not without its environmental caveats. For one, the regional electric grids that serve to recharge the ships while in port need to be generated from renewable energy, like hydropower, solar, or wind, to ensure the desired emissions reductions. And the supply must be sufficient “to ensure you can plug in large ocean-going vessels without burdening the local electricity demand,” Sturrup says.

Then there’s the issue of whether the shore power charging infrastructure is available. For instance, while the CLIA reports that nearly half of its member cruise ships (120 ships total) are equipped to turn off their engines and run on electricity while they’re plugged in at port, a mere 33 ports worldwide are currently equipped to receive them.

For maritime decarbonization to work, “Available capacity and infrastructure are the key,” says Gerry Larsson-Fedde, chief operating officer for Hurtigruten, whose cruise ship fleet has enabled shore-power connectivity fleetwide. He says this has proven a challenge for “companies calling on many ports in different countries.” (Hurtigruten operates mainly in Norway where shore power connections are widely available.)

There’s also a barrier to entry with upfront costs. “For larger ships, it’s a major retrofit,” says Sturrup. “If the ship wasn’t initially designed to be made for battery electric, it would need to go to dry dock and be reconstructed to have electric systems put in, and that can be costly for shipowners.”

There are also concerns about the environmental impacts from the manufacturing and disposal of the batteries. Still, Sturrup says that ICCT research has proven that over “an entire life cycle of a battery, it’s going to be cleaner than an internal combustion engine.”

Ultimately, Hurtigruten’s Larsson-Fedde believes that despite any caveats, the maritime electric revolution is an industry imperative. Converting to clean energy, he says, “is the only right thing to do, and we are confident this will be a ‘license to operate’ in future travel.”

Elissa Garay, modern-day explorer, perpetual seeker, and diligent travel scribe, has traveled to and reported on nearly 60 countries around the globe.
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