A quiet revolution

As summer approaches, many boaters are looking forward to getting back on the water. Meanwhile, there’s a quiet revolution taking place as our canals slowly go electric.

A brand new narrowboat, grey in colour with solar panels on top, on the canal at sunset ‘Old Nick’, a serial hybrid boat with all-electric propulsion

The Government’s Clean Maritime Plan states that by 2025 there must be a plan in place to ensure that all vessels (including those on inland waters) are able to meet the zero emissions by 2050 target. Electric engines, solar panels and wind turbines are already an increasingly common sight on our waterways. Waterfront caught up with two people at the helm of the electric revolution, Rob Howdle and Caroline Badger, to find out more.

A greener future

Caroline and Rob run Ortomarine, a boat-building company dedicated to reducing our carbon footprint. They recently took the bold decision to only build and sell boats with some form of electric propulsion, whether that’s a purely electric vessel, or a hybrid with rechargeable battery cells and a diesel engine.

So is this really the future of boating?  “There’s been a notable shift in the industry,” Rob tells us.

“Demand for electrically propelled boats is definitely growing.”

It’s true. The last few years have seen a real upsurge in the popularity of more environmentally viable boats. As Rob explains: “The more demand there is for a technology, the more research and development goes into it, which in turn drives down the cost, making it even more popular. There are lots of companies investing in solar power and battery technology and it’s all now being applied in the marine industry.”

A man with a blue t-shirt and wearing a brimmed hat steers a grey narrowboat on the canal ‘Watt Knot’, a diesel electric hybrid from Ortomarine, featuring solar panels

While some traditionalists may miss the familiar chug of a diesel engine, there’s a certain tranquility that you only get with an electrically propelled boat. As Rob tells us: “When you find a beautiful stretch of canal, it’s a peaceful, calm day and all you hear is the water lapping the front of the boat. It’s actually pretty perfect.”

End of an era?

However, the shift towards more eco-friendly vessels doesn’t quite spell the end of the traditional diesel-powered narrowboat. To accommodate zero-emission narrowboats, charging points need to be installed across the entire canal network. That’s a massive undertaking that, as a charity, the Canal & River Trust simply cannot take on alone. The government and marine industry as a whole will have to play their part too. As Rob explains: “Everyone agrees there’s an awful long way to go to make it possible for boaters to easily access electrical charging.”

Another major hurdle to recognise is cost. It’s important to stress that there is no obligation yet for boats currently powered by diesel to convert to electric, or other cleaner forms of fuel. But if that does ever come to pass, boaters would have to spend thousands to convert. With a brand-new eco-friendly model starting at around £140,000, that’s quite an investment either way.

Caroline agrees that it’s a difficult balancing act. “Many boat owners choose to live aboard because it’s a more cost-effective way to live,” she says.

“Converting everyone to zero-emission boats won’t be possible without some form of help, exemptions, grants or financial incentives.”

A brand new narrowboat, white in colour with solar panels on top driven by a man in a blue shirt ‘Hunky Dory’, a serial hybrid narrowboat from Ortomarine

Steady progress

While Caroline and Rob are quick to admit that better solutions need to be sought before we’re ready to switch to a fully electric boating experience, they’re in no doubt that the future lies in carbon-neutral boats.  

As Rob tell us: “The new directives that are being imposed are going to force a new direction for the industry. All this has to start somewhere and the more people that buy into it, the better it’ll be for the environment.”

As with all major change, progress may be slow, steady and carefully considered. So it might be a little while yet before we see our canals dominated by electric boats, cutting silently through the water.

All photos © Ortomarine

Last date edited: 14 April 2021

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