'Electric is the future': Kiwi boat builders ride wave as first battery-powered ferry service nears
Wellington Harbour will soon boast the Southern Hemisphere’s first battery-powered commuter ferry, as Kiwi firms make waves in the electric marine revolution. Todd Niall reports.
Jeremy Ward seems almost surprised to be within weeks of putting a new electric ferry into service in the capital.
The 135-seat carbon-fibre-hulled catamaran should join East by West Ferries’ cross-harbour run by Christmas, the most tangible achievement so far for New Zealand’s local marine industry as the world goes electric.
“I don’t quite understand why little old East by West is leading this,” said Ward, its managing director and the one who started the talk of going electric with the next ferry.
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The ferry operator’s sister firm Wellington Electric Boat Building Company (WEBBCO) is just one of around 20 Aotearoa firms making big or small waves in the electric marine revolution.
“Electric is an exciting development,” said Peter Busfield, the executive director of the Marine Industry Association.
“As exciting as moving from black-and-white to colour television - after one’s got it, everyone else will want it.”
Wellington is an unlikely place to be leading the electric marine revolution, a city that Ward points out lost its boat-building industry about 20 years ago.
Ward had been pondering a new ferry for the fleet, and on an overseas trip got hooked by a 40-metre-long, 400-passenger electric tourist ferry running in Norway’s fiords.
Back home, he met up with Fraser Foote, an experienced ferry-builder, and WEBBCO was formed in 2018, setting up in Gracefield.
“With the boat going faster than we thought, our resistance is down, therefore energy use is below what we expected – we can go further and faster,” said Foote.
WEBBCO is looking at two smaller boats for a service from downtown to Miramar and connecting to the airport, but the big opportunity is overseas, where the ferry has sparked interest.
“We are waiting now till everything is proven and the boat is in service, and we have actual data, then we will be looking to grow those enquiries,” he said.
WEBBCO believes it can service orders in Australasia from the Wellington base, fed by suppliers in Napier, and Whanganui, but further afield, deals might involve licensing builders in export markets.
Grants from the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Agency (EECA) and Callaghan Institute have helped, but most of the nearly $9 million development cost has been self-funded.
EV Maritime spun out of established boat builder McMullen and Wing, and has had a contribution from ferry operator Fullers360.
Its hopes are linked to Auckland Transport’s protracted work to devise a new strategy and funding for up to 20 public transport ferries, but it also has eyes overseas.
“Auckland, Sydney, Hong Kong, all have significant ferry fleets doing long distances, that have to go fast –there are substantial fleets of diesel ferries serving those cities,” said Michael Eaglen, CEO and co-founder.
He said fast electric commuter ferries were a logical part of the market to start in: “They are such busy boats, commuter ferries work hard, so lower operating costs give a real payback for investment.”
East by West estimated the premium to go electric could be clawed back in six to seven years.
“A diesel [engine] you’ll be rebuilding after 15,000 hours, and there’s daily checks, but an electric motor you won’t touch for 50,000 hours,” said Ward.
Fraser Foote put the fuel savings at $200,000 a year, and maintenance a further $50,000.
New Zealand’s place at the pointy end of the electric maritime sector was no mystery to Eaglen.
“That performance drive has often been our [New Zealand’s] speciality, not just in yacht racing, but even superyachts, which we were very busy with in the 90s and 2000s; quite novel, one-off boats taking on the challenge of technical tasks,” he said.
A bit further along Auckland’s eastern Tāmaki Estuary, Seachange is working another niche - a hydrofoiling, carbon-fibre car ferry, with a small prototype destined for the Cook Strait run.
A team of 25 is led by founder and chief executive Max Olson, who has his own take on Kiwi activity in the sector.
“My pick would be we have a really strong composites [carbon fibre] industry, and a bunch of really talented generalist engineers, who can tackle those hard cross-functional problems,” said Olson.
“A lot of the work put into America’s Cup boats over the last two decades has really helped funnel that, and kept it pushing along.”
Seachange’s team includes engineers hired from the America’s Cup and from the SailGP racing circuit, and one of its backers is Sir Stephen Tindall’s K1W1 investment vehicle, which is also a backer of Rocketlab.
Seachange is working on a 24-metre-long, six-car, 30-passenger vessel to trial on the Cook Strait by late 2023.
The production version is likely to be 40 metres, carrying 20 cars and 150 passengers, riding on foils 5 metres above a calm surface, enabling smooth passage in high seas.
“While we don’t have a super-deep car ferry market in New Zealand, Cook Strait – aside from a few minor differences – looks like a lot of routes in Europe, and Europe is a $30 billion car ferry industry.”
Nearby Zerojet, formed in 2015, has developed a battery-powered jet propulsion system for small runabouts and dinghies.
Zerojet hopes to have the first boats in the water before Christmas, aiming for 100 local sales before selling into the world market, where production boat builders have already shown strong interest.
“There’s huge demand from overseas – we’ve got more demand than we know what to do with, and people are very excited about the product,” said Bex Rempel, the co-founder and chief executive.
“For launching we are focused on [the] tender market, the dinghy on the back of bigger yachts, to go from the yacht to a beach and back, or a neighbour’s boat, sightseeing or other activities on the water,” she said.
Europe is Zerojet’s initial most-promising market, followed by parts of the United States.
“Regulations are changing around the world, very fast – putting increasingly higher emissions restrictions on outboards, to the point it won’t be economical to produce combustion outboards under, say, 40 horsepower,” she said.
Zerojet is not alone globally, but Rempel says there is room for a lot of players.
“There’s no one solution that’s going to make everyone happy; the industry is in infancy with so much room for growth and so much room for innovation.”
Like the other firms, Rempel saw a big future for New Zealand operators, as the marine sector followed land transport into switching from combustion engines, to clean electric.
“Electric is the future, if you look at the current market it’s only about 1.5 per cent of total sales,” said Rempel.
“Being in New Zealand is fantastic for us, we are definitely in the right place.”