Is electric propulsion the future in boating? | Björn Ingemanson, GMBA-Sweden

Is electric propulsion the future in boating?

Interview with Johan Inden, Head of Marine Segment at Volvo Penta

I had the possibility to sit down with Johan Inden, Head of Marine Segment at Volvo Penta and have a discussion around the propulsion systems for the future and his thoughts on electrification in the marine industry. Johan has spent almost 7 years at Volvo Penta, the first 4 years as CTO responsible for product development, purchasing and product strategies and the last 3 years responsible for the Marine Segment & Region Europe. Prior to that, he was the President of a Venture Capital business targeted towards new technologies and services. Volvo Penta is one of the world’s leading suppliers of marine engines and drive systems and has always been at the fore-front with innovative solutions in boating.

During the last few years there has been an increasing focus on electric propulsion in boating. Will this trend increase in speed or will it rather be different niches where we will see electric boats?

For sure the trend will continue. We see electrification coming strongly across many different industries and although marine sees a slower adoption, for reasons like safety, electric infrastructure for marinas and energy density of batteries, I’m sure electrification will play an important role in the future of boating, just as it does in the future of all transportation segments where leisure activities use some type of motorized equipment.

You are also right on the niches. Just like any new technology, electrification has strengths and weaknesses but on top of that it is developing fast. Hence the spreading across different segments will follow the logic of fit-for-use. Wherever it is feasible from a performance, feature, cost and safety perspective, we will see new solutions coming. This will be an evolution over decades.

Where do you see the main bottle-necks holding back the speed of electrification? Is it much more expensive, is it the capacity of the batteries as such or is it the charging infrastructure?

I have already mentioned a few but if I boil it down there are a few different categories of challenges.

  1. Safety – high voltage, current and water typically don’t mix well. New solutions need to adhere to the highest safety standards.
  2. Performance & affordability – this typically translates to energy density of batteries. Compared to a passenger car, a boat consumes exponentially more energy to move. Hence there is a need to store large amounts of energy which translates to cost and weight. In many applications, today’s technology becomes too heavy and too costly.
  3. Infrastructure – in a wide context this includes both the ability to charge in the marinas, the certification of standards at the service points and the standards to produce on the production lines. In short, learning to handle electric propulsion systems is an industry wide challenge. It is a challenge which is there to overcome, many industries have done it, and at Volvo Penta we want to be leaders in this 360 degree transformation. Providing safe, reliable systems fit not only for use but also production and service in a safe and reliable way.

I read about a fast electric ferry launched in Australia with a range of 175 nautical miles at a speed of 25kts. It seems like both the range and speed challenges have been met. Any reflections on that?   

As touched on earlier there are already viable business cases for electrification. Specifically we see adoption in commercial transport, like passenger ferries, where the business case not only looks at operating costs but also additional benefits like tax credits, subsidies and softer values like sustainability and technology leadership. I’m really glad to see how fast this sector is pioneered by forward thinking regions and operators. We are already involved in such pioneering projects and are looking to do more of that in the future.

And what about today’s diesel or gas/petrol engines – will they disappear?

The existence of smaller gas/petrol and diesel engines in the marine industry is to a large extend reliant on the existence of such engines for passenger cars, commercial transportation and industrial equipment. The volumes for marine will not justify larger scale production of such engines over time. So in the very, very long term we can expect the phasing out of those classic fuels. I say fuels because we are also see interesting alternatives to combust other, potentially cleaner fuels like hydrogen. Regarding timing I talk several decades, because there are a multitude of segments where we won’t see the viable option of non-combustion engines for a long time. As stated before we expect a step wise- and application driven transformation, where end user preferences, social trends, technology and legislation together will pace the transformation.

The Volvo Group has committed to the Science Based Targets and become a net zero-emissions company by 2050. In what way will this decision influence Volvo Penta’s product range the coming years?

The Volvo Group commitment to Science Based Target is a commitment to be at the forefront of transforming the transportation industry. I’m really glad that Volvo Penta is part of a larger group making such commitments, because it means we will have access to the latest and greatest technologies and knowledge in these fast-moving areas. This will be of great use in our continued aspiration to lead the marine market.

What about fuel cells and hydrogen, will we see that technology also applied to the marine propulsion solutions? In such case when and in what areas? 

We see many large corporations as well as start-ups active in the hydrogen field, whether it’s in fuel cells or hydrogen combustion. Hydrogen for sure has a strong long term prospect as a fuel. Volvo Group has, for instance, invested in a joint venture with Daimler Group on fuel cells for commercial transportation and we will see many more such initiatives going forward. I have some earlier experience from fuel cells and I know it takes a while to mature such technologies for commercial, wide spread use, so I believe it will take quite some years before we see wide spread adoption of fuel cells in marine. However, let’s again consider the earlier mentioned niches driven by e.g. technology pilots and subsidies – this will for sure produce a steady stream of early adopters.

Finally Johan, what is your own vision for marine going forward?

I love this question Björn! The waterways, lakes and oceans have always played and essential role in societies. With the present trends of urbanization and increased transportation but also the hunt for exclusive and serene experiences and an active, outdoors lifestyle, I believe the waterways, lakes and oceans will playing a central role for humanity. To allow our children, and their children and many generations to come to enjoy these fantastic environments, we have a responsibility to keep the seas clean and develop sustainable solutions. The technology portfolio, the trends in society and the consumer’s as well as professional operators’ sentiment is all there. It’s a great mix for innovation and change. And I love to be in the forefront of this evolution.

Thank you Johan for your interesting thoughts and answers in this important area. Time will tell!

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