Australians have an enduring love for the nation’s waterways. In the summer months this is especially apparent, as alongside swimmers you see a whole range of boaters out and about in bays, beaches, rivers and harbours all across the country. This tradition of enjoying life on the water will surely continue in generations ahead - but there’s no doubt certain aspects are set to change soon. And indeed, it’s necessary that this occurs.

Although boating in beautiful Aussie waterways is a great way to connect with nature, the reality is that the use of fossil fuels to power boats is of course not clean and green. So, what’s required to make a shift to boats powered exclusively by electricity? Let’s look now.

Why Boats Pollute

At the outset it’s important to note we are focusing firstly on a discussion of small - AKA hobby craft - boats here. This said, just as it’s certainly the case these smaller vessels pollute less than huge ships like commercial tankers and cruise liners, we shall indeed touch on these larger watercraft later on in the article.

Everyone understands cars and other road vehicles cause pollution. That small (alongside large) boats do too is not always as immediately apparent, given nobody sitting on a beach is going to see a boat parked at a red light with smoke coming out of a tailpipe! But the reality is just as the diverse abundance of life found in Aussie waterways beneath the waves is testament to there being lots of activity always going on out of sight, so too can it be harder to recognise the damage a typical fossil fuel-powered small boat causes; but it’s still clearly occurring. The fact is such boats pollute, and can contribute harm to the environment not just in one way, but in multiple ways.

First, there is indeed the emissions boats cause by their usual operation which generate carbon dioxide. Then, there is the leakage of oil and gas. Even if boat owners are not knowingly letting this issue occur, the fact is boats which are due for maintenance could end up leaking fluids before the servicing gets done. Then, there are the harmful cleaning chemicals and solutions which may be used to maintain the boat. It’s true this last factor is not by default confined to non-electric boats, but it’s an illustration that - just as any boat owner can seek to find products which are less harmful than others - the environmental harm a boat can cause is not just confined to areas like the fuel it uses in operation; how it’s maintained when not in use can also have a negative impact on the surrounding ecosystem.

What Electric Boats Can Offer

STC Electric Boat Image

Like their electric car counterparts on the roads, electric boats offer some substantial advantages over fossil fuel-powered watercraft. The propulsion of electric boats occurs without the release of substances like carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxide. In addition to their cleaner processes being a (literal) breath of fresh air for the atmosphere above the water, that electric boats require no fuel and very little oil means their operation is much healthier for the environment on and below the surface of the waves. Furthermore, electric boats can also be expected to operate in a far quieter way than their petrol-powered counterparts. This means far less disruption and/or distress is caused to aquatic life in the surrounds. This is important as the noise of a boat isn’t just a potential minor annoyance to fish and other life in the sea, but in certain instances it can disrupt the ability of sea life to navigate, and thus interrupt their regular seasonal travel and mating cycles.

It’s also the case that electric boats can be made with clean and green materials, like recycled plastics. It’s true this assembly aspect is not confined exclusively to electric boats - someone could of course theoretically build a new boat with very eco-friendly materials and then pop a petrol-powered motor on the back - but for manufacturers of electric boats, there’s the extra incentive to pursue such materials in their creation given the capacity to market the boat as a clean and green design more widely. In turn, there’s no question green advocates are appreciative of electric boat manufacturers who look to build their watercraft with sustainable materials. Thus, pursuing these complementary aims of a clean engine and sustainable materials both help drive positive progress at the cutting-edge of the boat market.

Why Electric Uptake in Australia is Comparatively Challenging

One of the challenges surrounding the uptake of electric boats in Australia concerns ‘range anxiety’. This term will be familiar to current and would-be EV owners. For while the notion of range anxiety as it pertains to an electric vehicle on the road is rapidly disappearing - and shamefully it was indeed blown out of proportion in years prior by fossil fuel advocates and others seeking to baselessly undermine clean and green technology - when it comes to boats there is a greater challenge in many ways given the nature of Australia’s waterways, and the ways in which Aussies have become accustomed to using their boats.

It’s sometimes remarked in pop culture that Australians and Europeans have a different sense of distance. To illustrate this, take the fact that Melbourne to Sydney by road is approximately 878 kilometres, and London to Berlin is not all that much more distant at 1096 kilometres. Just as it can’t go unsaid there’s of course many brilliant and wonderful stops along the way between Melbourne and Sydney, it’s of course the case that the cultural diversity on the trip between London to Berlin is far more immense, with it requiring travel between three countries (with Belgium in the middle), and with the Netherlands and France a relatively short ‘detour’ away from the main route. This is quite a difference compared to a trip between Australia’s two largest cities. A trip that is terrific, but ultimately sees the passage through just two states, with no other bordering countries surrounding it.

This dynamic is indeed analogous when it comes to the experience of electric boats being used in Europe versus Australia. Generally speaking, many Europeans will utilise a boat as a hobby boat for pleasure on shorter trips - such as an afternoon out fishing on the local lake. By contrast, Australians - not only befitting our status as an island nation, but also the distances at which we’re comfortable to travel each day - are more accustomed to getting out on the open ocean, and/or travelling greater distances to go sink a fishing line, or do some snorkelling or diving. This reality helps explain not only why electric boats have had a more limited uptake in Australia, but also the hurdles they will have to overcome to appeal to the masses in a bigger way in future.

Overall, there certainly isn’t disinterest on the part of many Aussie boaters when it comes to considering an electric boat for their next purchase, but instead it’s simply a matter of electric boats being able to sufficiently cater to conventional needs and uses across the Great Southern Land’s waterways.

Big Boats are a Big Issue

STC Big Boat Ship

Just as we’ve been discussing the pollution boats in their current form can create, it’s important a distinction is made between the boats we’ve been focused on so far - small AKA hobbyist boats - and boats like cruise ships, with populations on board when sailing from port to port that can rival the population of regional Australian towns, with well in excess of 5000 passengers.

Ultimately, in future, cruise ships will need to make the transition to going electric, just as smaller boats shall. Yet, it’s also a plain reality that while the future is coming fast indeed in terms of being able to provide consumers an electric boat that could easily deliver the goods for a day-long fishing trip and return ride home, cruise ships crossing to and from international destinations will of course require a greater scope from any batteries that come to power it.

There is also the necessary consideration of what happens if power fails? A car that loses power can often be easily shepherded off the road, and thus to safety. If an electric boat’s battery failed while out in the ocean, it’s a different ball game. As well as the potential for a back-up battery, many sailors may come to use electric boats operating as a ‘hybrid’ in the transition era, with electric being the chief source of power, and a fossil fuel motor serving as backup. Yes, purists may rue the use of fossil fuels even in a backup capacity. But were this model to prove the difference between seeing a strong uptake of electric boats, versus a slow and dwindling uptake because of range anxiety concerns, then it may be a case of green advocates needing to accept a little bad, in order to be able to achieve a whole lot of good.

It’s indeed also the case that with the rise of electric boats could come greater investment in emergency infrastructure and support - as alongside it being easy to imagine docks across Sydney’s iconic harbour one day soon having electric boat chargers just as Australian streets increasingly do for electric cars - and accordingly, the rare instances of electric boat battery issues could be resolved with a call for emergency help. It’s also necessary to note boats powered by fossil fuels can of course encounter operating issues too, and - if taking electric cars as a great example - it could be said that boaters could anticipate electric boats being more reliable than their fossil fuel-powered counterparts. But even so, it’s a reality not all countries globally will have the resources to provide on-water support to boaters as can typically be done in Australia. Thus, if green advocates are seeking to imagine a world where electric boats have a strong rise in popularity, accepting an era where they find popularity first in a hybrid format for a time may be necessary.

Setting Sail in a New Era

Nobody wants to spoil the fun of an outing on the water. It’s also the case that when it comes to the greatest amount of harm being done to the world’s oceans and other waterways, it is not being done by a couple of local fishers casting off in a dinghy somewhere quiet on Sunday morning! Instead, responsibility for the greatest harm resides with stakeholders like cruise line operators, transport operators, and a variety of actors on-land whose goods find their ways into storm water drains, and then out into the ocean. So, for anyone with a non-electric boat that’s read this article and worries if their weekend trips must become a thing of the past, it’s important to recognise the many excellent pathways that exist for continuing to enjoy boating, while also changing it into a clean and green activity. If not for looking to buy an electric boat soon, then electric conversion of a current boat’s engine could be a very worthwhile option to pursue.

And, for anyone super keen on going green on land and at sea, it’s wise to note if yet to have a rooftop solar system that they can truly be fantastic in so many ways. A rooftop solar system can drive down the cost of electricity bills today, provide a defence against any rise in them tomorrow, and it can also help charge an electric boat! It’s also the case - if a boat is berthed in or alongside your property but is at a distance from the main home - that an off-grid solar system on a boat shed, or a ground-mounted solar system, could potentially be installed so as to provide your boat a direct line to 100% clean and green energy that it can recharge with!

Here at STC, we have many more resources you can explore if you’re keen to learn more.

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