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A quiet revolution

As summer arrives, many boaters are looking forward to getting back on the water. Meanwhile, there is 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

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 is 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 Caroline 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

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.”

Overhead shot of several electric canal boats travelling down the canal

Putting electric to the test

As with a car, you can only truly know how well greener forms of propulsion work when you give them a test-drive. That's why in late May, Ortomarine held a trial event on the River Severn that saw eight boats with three different forms of propulsion cruise from Worcester to Droitwich.

As a point of comparison, two of the straight diesel boats ran on traditional red diesel, whilst the third ran on a greener diesel substitute, hydrotreated vegetable oil (HVO). The experienced helmsman driving ‘Oyster Moon' on HVO was very impressed with the clean burn of the fuel, the performance, and the lack of diesel fumes in locks.

Some boats were ‘parallel' hybrids running diesel and electric power side by side. ‘Serial hybrids' also took part, propelling themselves with electric power only, but with the back-up of a small diesel generator to supply more electric power if batteries ran low.

Preliminary results show the boats completed the day's cruise without incident. All the electric boats were able to travel upstream on the Severn using only electric power, in “Amber” conditions.

The Hybrid boats using electricity from solar panels and battery storage needed 9.7kWh to complete the cruise. Meanwhile a 12-panel solar array generated 2.9 kWh during the trial on the overcast day.

The energy gathered from solar panels was, at best, one third of that required for the cruise, which shows that overnight charging is still needed for cruising the next day.

End of an era?

So, it's clear that this slow 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, as well as local councils and waterside developments and businesses 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.

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

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 Caroline 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 except where stated

Last Edited: 08 July 2021

photo of a location on the canals
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