Michigan ‘leading the charge’ in marine electrification

The state of Michigan is leading the charge in electric boats and marine electrification in the US with the ‘Fresh Coast Maritime Challenge’, a first-of-its-kind program for sustainable transportation on inland waterways. It encompasses everything from recreational boating to commercial activity on the Great Lakes to marina innovation and infrastructure.

Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer says “The Fresh Coast Maritime Challenge represents the intersection of mobility, outdoor recreation, and economic development and will create wide-reaching benefits across the entire state.” 

11,000 lakes, 880,000 registered boats

“It will serve to modernize one of the most prevalent methods of mobility in Michigan while supporting sustainable marinas and commercial watercraft and protecting the beauty of our Great Lakes for generations to come.”

marine electrification at Elk Rapids marina with Aqua superPower charger on docks
Elk Rapids Marina docks and Elk Rapids Hydroelectric Power building in background

With over 11,000 lakes, Michigan has the largest freshwater coastline in the U.S. and more than 800,000 boats registered, providing a tremendous opportunity to eliminate emissions by adopting clean, electric boating.

One of the things that has been proven in the transition to electric mobility is that government programs and incentives are critical to speeding up adoption. What has also become evident is that it is necessary that these programs work ‘on the ground’ – or ‘on the water’ and ‘at the docks’ in the case of electric boats.

I was fortunate enough to be at the launch of the Fresh Coast Maritime Challenge in Elk Rapids Michigan in late August I can say that if it continues in the same way it started, electric boats and boating have a great future in the state.

marine electrification presentation
L-R: Scott Canning of Aqua superPower, Susie and Lewis Coper of Elk Rapids Marina, James Breyer of Hercules Marine

The event took place at Elk Rapids Marina, which was purchased 3 years ago by Lewis and Susie Cooper, who have transformed it into a state-of-the-art facility and community hub. Lewis said that when they bought the property they wanted to embrace the community, and one of the unique things about Elk Rapids is that there is a small hydroelectricity generating plant directly across the channel from the marina docks.

Marine electrification corridors

“It kind of got us thinking, how do we take advantage of that?” said Lewis. “That’s what set us down this path of carrying electric boats as part of our offerings.” The marina became a dealer and official Midwest distribution partner for X Shore electric boats in June of 2022, and through that association they investigated all aspects of electric boating.

One of the organizations they contacted was their local economic development organization, Traverse Connect (Elk Rapids is in the Grand Traverse region) who had been talking with the Michigan Economic Development Corporation’s (MEDC) Office of Future Mobility and Electrification (OFME).

marine electrification demonstrated by this Eelex 1 by X Shore
X Shore Eelex

As it turns out, they had all been working to prepare and announce the new Fresh Coast Maritime Challenge and they were particularly concentrating on the concept of a ‘Fresh Coast Corridor’, a network of shore-side charging facilities for commercial and electric passenger vehicles operating on the Great Lakes.

Another key player was global marine fast charging network Aqua superPower, who have multiple stations in Europe and a strategic partnership with US electric boat builder Ingenity. They have also recently installed a high speed charger on Lake George in New York State.

June 2023: Aqua superPower expands network in US, Italy, UK

Charlie Tyson, Technology Activation Director at the OFME, outlined how the Michigan program has been set up. “The Michigan mobility funding platform works with local partners to provide grants for businesses, offsetting costs for new initiatives.”

“This particular grant, of $506,000, is centred around sustainable maritime and marine electrification, so installing high speed charging stations fits perfectly. Traverse Connect is really doubling down on the electric opportunity for the region and we are excited to be able to come in to provide some grant dollars to kickstart it a bit”

Doubling down on electric opportunity

Automobiles and the auto industry have been a foundation of Michigan’s economy for a century, so there there has already attention given to supporting electric vehicle adoption. Building of the Lake Michigan EV circuit, for instance, is underway to build out the charging infrastructure on land to enable and encourage local eco tourism.

“It’s interesting,” says Tyson. “Aqua superPower utilizes the same type of technology that passenger vehicle charging stations do – they’re just focused on electric boats. What is critical to building out the fresh water corridor of chargers in the area is that Aqua supports a wide range of different boat manufacturers.”

people listening to marine electrification seminar
Vita Seal

Scott Canning, Aqua superPower’s Vice President of Business Development / North America, says “We work very closely with multiple OEMs because that is the best way to achieve our mission of reducing the impact of boating on the marine environment.”

“The other important aspect of speeding up the electric transition is building these charger corridors. Grand Traverse Bay is not huge, but there’s a lot of boating activity going on, so it’s an ideal place where you can position chargers strategically and get a really solid corridor. That’s going to make people feel less anxious about switching to electric.”

Perception of range limitations

Lewis Cooper agrees. “People talk about the price of electric boats, but people like to talk about the price of everything. When you really start comparing the cost of an X Shore 1 with a similar kind of boat, they’re not too far off.”

“The bigger thing I hear is the perception – and I stress perception – of limited range. Here on an inland lake, I say how much range anxiety can you have when you can see your house, but it’s the perception. A corridor makes people feel better and does give them more boating options.”

So it was that Elk Rapids came to be the location for Michigan’s first marine high speed charger – installed right across the channel from the hydroelectric plant.

The distinctive blue Aqua superPower unit is constructed using Hydro CIRCAL recycled aluminum and has two connectors, each with power output of 75 kW outlets (Level 3). The connectors use the international CCS charging standard and everything is certified IP65 for water and dust protection.

Aqua superPower marine electrification plug

The launch of a high speed charger is not very exciting if there isn’t something for it to charge, so the Marina and Fresh Coast Maritime Challenge welcomed 5 boats to the opening, provided by X Shore, Ingenity, Vita Yachts, and two Michigan-based grant recipients – Lilypad Labs and Hercules Marine.

There were representatives from all of the participating state departments at the launch, along with local politician John Roth, state Senator John Damoose, nearby marina operators and curious boat owners looking to find out more about electric.

That was the whole point – to give first hand personal demonstrations of the benefits and ease of switching to electric. The marina itself is located a few miles of shallow channel from the main part of Grand Traverse Bay, but that was enough to give all of the attending guests an idea of how quiet an electric boat is and provide brief some brief flurries of speed, performance and handling.

Five electric boats to experience

The X Shore Eelex is the company’s original model, larger than the X Shore 1 at 27 feet /  8 metres. I didn’t go out on the Eelex in Elk Rapids, because I previously had a test drive opportunity at the 2022 Fort Lauderdale Boat Show It is quiet (of course), spacious, comfortable and beautifully appointed with nifty design touches and a cork deck.

I don’t know if the Elk Rapids passengers had an opportunity to feel the torque of the Eelex when getting on plane, but I can say from my Lauderdale experience that I hope they were prepared. It is quite remarkable how quickly and effortlessly it gets to speed.

electric pontoon boat
Pontoon boat powered by Hercules Marine Inboard/Outboard

Similarly, I didn’t take up space on the Vita Seal because I was the guest of the Vita team at the Monaco Energy Boat Challenge on the E-Rally from Monaco to Ventimiglia, Italy.

The Seal’s RIB hull performs beautifully on the ocean water, and in terms of range, we were going at a speed of 28 mph knots for most of the 16 mile journey (there and back) and the battery had plenty of charge remaining on our return.

Elk Rapids was my  first opportunity to be on water with the Ingenity EL dayboat, which is built on a unique platform. I can’t describe it better than Jeff Hammond in this article on Boat Test, so I will let him do it:

“The Ingenity marries an aluminum, catamaran-like hull platform with a fibreglass superstructure to create an electrically powered luxury, protected-water day boat. She has the stability of a catamaran, the interior room and comfort of a deluxe pontoon boat, the protective windshield of a dual console and the stern watersports functionality of a sterndrive bowrider.”

Nine of us went out in the Ingenity in Elk rapids, with plenty of space for all. Three of my fellow passengers were marina owners and one an boat mechanic, so were fortunate to have  Ingenity’s Director of Sale, Tod Sims, as our captain. Todd has been in the electric boat field since 2006 and is one of the most knowledgable people in the country.

During the cruise along the channel he gave a complete rundown of every aspect of the boat and there were some impressed nods among the passengers when he was able to open it up a bit on the deeper waters.

Using almost zero electricity at low speeds

One of the points Sims made was that Ingenity research shows that most boaters are on the throttle for three hours or less, even though they might be out in the boat for five hours, six hours. 

“A lot of that is in neutral or idling or going like this,” he says, looking down at the battery gauge and range estimator “You’re using pretty much zero…well…two kilowatts. That means you can run this boat for 64 hours, which is not going to be a use case.” 

The LilyPad is a delightful little boat with two solar panel arrays that act as the boat cover when it is at dock, then slide open to reveal a small salon area with banquette seats and a table. Designed for rental outfits and resorts, it is steered by an ingenious device that sits on the gunwale, looks sort of like a computer mouse and is just as easy to get the hang of.

images showing Lilypad solar boat with boat covered and panels open to reveal boat interior

The fifth boat available for demos was an unbranded pontoon boat powered by an electric inboard/outboard from Hercules Marine. The motor has a system architecture that uses three different modes that act almost like gearing.

In slow mode the boat can get up to a maximum speed of about 7 mph, medium mode takes the maximum speed up to about 27 miles an hour, and in high mode the top speed is 31 miles an hour. The trade off, of course, is that the higher the speed the lower the range.

Which is where the idea of a charging corridor comes in. It means a boater doesn’t have to choose between a short time on the water at high speed or long time on the water at slow speed. Aqua high speed chargers stationed on a route can provide enough energy in a short period of time (20 minutes or so) to allow many options.
3 electric boats on Grand Traverse Bay

Charlie Tyson of the OFME says the agency has been focussed on getting multiple marinas in the area to have at least one charger, with 4 scheduled to be installed by the 2024 boating season.

“Then these companies and others will be able to do demos to provide the public with the experience of electric boating. I do foresee some marinas putting in multiple charging stations as the adoption of electric boats increases, but for now the short term goal is to have at least one at a number of marinas in the Northwest Michigan region.”

Four high speed chargers for 2024 season

“We see the Fresh Coast Maritime Challenge grant program as being one piece of a broader clean maritime goal for the state of Michigan. It supports the Michigan My Healthy Climate sustainability plan and there are other items in the 2024 state budget for things like a freshwater Research Center in Grand Traverse Bay. The overall goal is not just environmental sustainability, but also economic development.”

Warren Call, president and CEO of Traverse Connect, said “Our vision for the Grand Traverse region is to be the epicenter for the new electric boating industry – from hosting development and manufacturing of watercraft and charging stations to serving as the hub of a fully-functioning corridor for recreational and commercial boat traffic.”

“Electrification of the marine industry is at the heart of our growing Blue Economy, which will further diversify and grow our larger economic ecosystem”.

Elk Rapids Marina  Aqua superPower  Hercules Marine  Ingenity Electric  Lilypad Labs  Vita Yachts  X Shore Michigan Office of Future Mobility and Electrification

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