COLUMN | Electrified [The Bow Wave]

Is there a place for a battery powered workboat? My thinking for this question comes from observing two particular types of vessels and why I think they’re suitable for “electrification”. With the advances in battery power thanks to the efforts of Tesla Motors amongst other manufacturers, other industries are able to leverage the investments that have been made for their own ends.

The first type of vessel that I think could be an early adopter for going all electric is the fish farm work boat. Whether they are farming fin fish or shell fish, many operations rely on sub-fifteen-metre LOA workboats with a flat, wide work deck and generally a small wheelhouse.

Their power requirements are generally modest for their size and the engines are normally operating only at the start and end of shift with only minimal engine use to move between pens or cages during the day. The amount of kilowatt hours of power expended by these craft in a day could easily be catered for by an appropriately sized, mass produced battery.

Although a battery pack can made into any shape, looking at the pictures of the Oystercatcher II and a Tesla battery back, they almost seem made for each other. It doesn’t take a large stretch of the imagination to see a battery pack being built low into the hull of such a craft where it would aid in vessel stability as opposed to the sacrifices in design that are made to put a heavy outboard or two above water level at the stern.

The vessel would benefit from reduced noise under operation, which if someone could get the funding to investigate further would, I’m sure, result in happier fish in addition to happier crew. Once the vessel is tied in its berth it would be a matter of plugging in a power cable with an overnight charge being more than sufficient to refill the batteries.

The large battery would also be useful for powering an appropriately sized deck crane without the need for a separate genset, which is often needed on outboard powered craft that are unable to produce sufficient ekW from their propulsion system.

The other area where I think that battery power could be extremely useful is in free fall lifeboats. Why? Because battery powered devices are fantastic for things that are going to be left unattended with minimal maintenance for potentially years on end and still be expected to operate flawlessly when needed.

A properly maintained lifeboat, and I do mean properly maintained, will need to be serviced regularly and inspected even more so. Think of all the parts of a diesel engine that can and will deteriorate due to lack of use. Lubricants and seals are the primary ones along with water build-up in the diesel tank. Corrosion is not uncommon inside the boat, especially if dehumidifiers aren’t checked on a regular basis.

A battery powered system however has only two components, the motor and the battery, both of which are comparatively maintenance free compared to a diesel engine. The sheer number of moving parts that are eliminated will also result in reduced production cost.

A battery powered vessel, connected to the host ship’s electrical system via a quick-detach power cable will be able to monitor its own maintenance requirements, alerting the owner to any problems. If the lifeboat were to be equipped with a satellite communication system, or even a traditional mobile phone system, it would be able to send equipment health updates to the manufacturer and/or the owner. Depending upon how serious the need for action on the alert, it could be sent immediately by satellite or it could wait until a lower cost cellular connection is made when it next passes a coastline.

Information on battery health, current flows, which can indicate corrosion of wires, humidity and numerous other sensors can all be assessed along with reminders on inspections of water and stores. A sensor on the lifeboat hatch could even tell if someone is stowing away or pilfering the survival rations.

The pessimist will look at the battery powered lifeboat and point out that an owner that is concerned about crew safety will already have appropriate maintenance plans in place, and will ensure that these plans are implemented and strictly followed whereas the owner who places maintenance, and therefore crew safety, as a lower priority is unlikely to spend the money required to replace old, inefficient and unreliable lifeboats with the battery powered variety. This may indeed be true however the previously mentioned cost savings, as battery prices drop, are sure to reach a point where a responsible, yet pennywise owner will observe the benefits in switching.

Do you think battery powered boats will make an appearance anytime soon? Let me know your thoughts.

Any comments, or perhaps you’ve come across something interesting? Feel free to contact me at [email protected]

Andrew Baird

Experienced geologist and seabed mining entrepreneur, Andrew reviews cutting edge technology from around the world across a wide spectrum of industries, and considers their potential applications in the work boat world.