Sea Change: Why the Electric Boat Industry is Sailing to Northern Michigan
Cherries. Sand dunes. Electric boats?
The first two are proven claims to fame for the Northern Michigan region, but the last is still hypothetical. And while electric boats represent just 2% of the maritime economy*, industry players see great potential and see Northern Michigan as a great place to make a name for themselves.
In this $5 gas summer and at a time when electric vehicles are gaining market share in nearly every category of the auto industry, it’s perhaps no surprise that electric boats are finally under the limelight. For years, worries about massive batteries, low speeds and limited range have kept the electric side of the boat market from making much headway. But Lewis Cooper, co-owner of Elk Rapids Marina with his wife Susie, says technology has improved enough to make electric boats a reasonable alternative to gas-powered vessels. These days, the Coopers even take it upon themselves to highlight the appealing capabilities of electric boats to their customers.
“My wife and I bought the marina about a year and a half ago, and they had kind of a single-boat line [that they were selling] and two pontoon boats,” says Cooper. “We were looking for something unique and different to bring to a northern Michigan marina, as opposed to another Boston Whaler dealership or another Sea Ray dealership.”
This research, says Cooper The ticker, led Elk Rapids Marina to enter into a dialogue with X Shore, a Swedish manufacturer breaking down barriers in the field of electric boating. Basically, X Shore boats are powered by a state-of-the-art electric motor that can deliver both speed (over 30 knots or 34.5 miles per hour) and range (up to 100 miles per hour). sailors, at slower speeds). X Shore was not yet very present in the Midwest and did not have dealerships in the state of Michigan. So the Coopers have reached an agreement that will soon bring X Shore retail vessels to the Elk Rapids Marina. Around Memorial Day, the marina installed its first Model X Shore on site — a demonstration vessel the Coopers are using to show off the benefits of electric boating.
“We’ve done a few demo rides and are starting to book events on the boat,” says Cooper. “It’s similar to an electric car, where you know intellectually what you’re about to experience, but when you experience it, it really hits the mark.”
In early demonstrations, Cooper says customers were particularly won over by two factors: torque, or the X Shore boat’s ability to pick up speed much faster than the average powerboat; and quiet, since electric boats don’t have the roaring engine noise common with gas-powered vessels. “We just had a cocktail party on the boat on Thursday, to show how quiet it is, and we’re working with a music teacher in Interlochen to do a concert on the boat, to show how quiet it is.”
The X Shore partnership isn’t the only strategy Elk Rapids Marina uses to encourage adoption. Quiet, fast-accelerating boats are an easy sell, but Cooper says it’s much harder to get boaters to buy what’s commonly seen as the biggest handicap of electric boats: limited range, especially at higher speeds. Similar to electric cars, electric boats are only good for short-distance jaunts unless there is charging infrastructure that travelers can rely on.
Northern Michigan could soon benefit from this infrastructure: Aqua superPower, a London-based maritime fast-charging network, is eyeing the region for one of its first expansions in North America. Currently, the vast majority of Aqua superPower chargers are found in Europe, in places like Saint-Tropez, Cannes, Monaco, Portofino and Venice. Last week, however, Aqua made its first mark on North American waters by launching a fast charger in Lake Tahoe, California. And northern Michigan won’t be far behind: Elk Rapids Marina is working with Traverse City’s Aqua superPower and Windemuller Electric to install an Aqua fast charger at its docks.
Scott Canning, vice president of business development for Aqua superPower in North America, promises that the Elk Rapids station will not be unique. He notes that Aqua also has a contract in place with G. Marsten Dame Marina in Northport and is in talks with several other area ports and marinas, including Duncan L. Clinch Marina in Traverse City. Since Northern Michigan has several port towns scattered along the coast of Lake Michigan and the Elk River chain of lakes, Canning says the area is an ideal location for Aqua superPower to set up shop.
“Our mission is to reduce the impact of recreational boating on the marine environment through the development of an all-electric, integrated global ecosystem of marine superchargers,” Canning explains. “It’s a bit long, but it basically means that what’s important for us is to have these feeder corridors. Because if you only have one feeder in one place, it’s not isn’t much use for you to go through your normal day of boating. We want the transition from gas to electric to be as uncompromising as possible. Grand Traverse Bay isn’t huge, but there are plenty of water activities, so it’s a great place where you can strategically position the chargers and get a really strong charging corridor, and that’s going to make people less anxious about going electric.
Establishing Northern Michigan as one of North America’s premier corridors for electric boats could also have other impacts, namely attracting electric boat companies to the region. Aqua superPower has been in talks with Traverse Connect, which Warren Call – president and CEO of Traverse Connect – teased this spring during a presentation at the Traverse City Downtown Development Authority about new business attraction opportunities.
“We actually spoke yesterday with a company that provides electric boat charging,” Call said at the time. “They’re interested in coming here – and other electric boat companies too – to see what opportunities might be here. Obviously for tourism and for those of us who live here and have boats, that’s a great opportunity. But what interests us the most is that we become an area known as one of the first corridors – in particular one of the first corridors in fresh water – which has important charging stations and electric boat dealerships, so we have the opportunity to be a place for research, development of new technologies and perhaps manufacturing of these components and items.
* by market research firm Mobility Foresights