By Zack Metcalfe
Over the past decade, Canadians have become familiar with electrified bikes, cars, passenger trucks, dump trucks, transport trucks, city buses, and even a few lightweight aircraft, their spinning propellers powered by lithium-ion batteries. But who ever heard of an electric boat?
Enter the Alutasi, a classic Cape Islander retrofitted in 2020 with an electric motor and batteries to supplement its diesel engine. The Alutasi is the first watercraft in its class (12 passengers and above) in Canada to be powered primarily with lithium-ion batteries. Its conversion was carried out by Glas Ocean Electric, a young enterprise bringing electrification to Atlantic Canadian waters.
Glas Ocean Electric was founded in 2016 by Sue Molloy, a naval architect and ocean engineer specializing in renewable power and ship propulsion. Erudite and innovative, she is exactly the person you’d expect to sneak an electric motor onto a fishing boat. The Alutasi was her first crack at the idea, carried out as a research project in partnership with Transport Canada.
The Alutasi boat launch on July 21, 2021, from left to right: Dennis Campbell, CEO, Ambassatours Gray Line; Sue Malloy, President, Glas Ocean Electric; and, Alan Syliboy, Mi’kmaw artist. Credit: Ambassatours Gray Line.
Saving on fuel might be the most intuitive advantage of an electric motor, but it is by no means the most pronounced. Diesel engines are loud, so loud in fact that workplace studies in Newfoundland found hearing loss to be several times worse among those employed in the fishing industry. The motors installed by Glas Ocean Electric, however, dial down the volume so dramatically that captain and crew can comfortably talk without shouting, or even listen to the radio. And the amount of noise being generated underwater — famously interfering with the acoustic communication of various marine mammals — is halved by an electric motor. They also address the issue of diesel fumes, which assault the lungs of sailors at low speeds — electric motors don’t produce any.
Importantly, there is also climate change, the swift and catastrophic warming of our planet and, in particular, of our oceans. Molloy calculates that the 15,000 small vessels of Atlantic Canada, most of which lack catalytic converters, are producing no less than 1,000,000 tonnes (one megatonne) of eCO2 emissions annually, which could be reduced by 400,000 tonnes through widespread adoption of hybrid electric retrofits. Fully electric boats will, of course, perform better still.
“Anyone who works with boats knows how many emissions they’re putting out there,” said Molloy. “I know there’s something big happening on the oceans from an emissions standpoint, and it hasn’t been tackled. I know that we can have a big impact. And I’m a mom. I’m doing this for my kids, and for other people’s kids.”
It’s still early days for Glas Ocean Electric, but the sailors of Atlantic Canada have proven themselves receptive, enchanted by the idea of listening to the radio while out on the water, saving small fortunes on fuel, charging their boats overnight, and keeping their old diesel engines for peace of mind. Change is in the wind, says Molloy, and the sooner we get started, the better.
“It’s very important that we do this fast,” she said. “This is important stuff. The world’s not in good shape and we need to fix it.”
Zack Metcalfe is a freelance journalist, columnist and
author active across the Maritimes.
Featured image: The Alutasi, a traditional Cape Islander fishing vessel, operated primarily for deep sea fishing, was converted to a battery-operated, hybrid electric vessel — the first of its kind approved by Transport Canada’s Marine Technology Review Board. Credit: Glas Ocean Electric.