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How Washington is leading the way for electric boats in the US

From a start-up on Lake Union to the Washington State Ferries system, the Puget Sound region is proving to be a leader in electrifying water transportation.

SEATTLE — A city shaped by water is the inspiration for innovation. It’s why Washington state has become a leader in electric boating technology in the United States.

“Seattle is a place where you touch the water,” Pure Watercraft founder Andy Rebele said while aboard the company's pontoon boat in the middle of Lake Union.

Seattle is a place where Rebele sees opportunity. More than a decade ago, Rebele was reading about electric cars and thought it was useful technology for a boat.

“I didn't look around for how can I start a company. I looked around to just buy a boat," said Rebele. "But nobody was making an exciting electric boat."

What came next was the creation of Rebele’s company Pure Watercraft, which is headquartered on the shore of Lake Union. The company created an outboard motor and built a pontoon boat that is completely electric.

“There are two things people notice,” said Rebele. “They notice they can't hear it, and they can't see the outboard motor. The motor is underwater, where a gas outboard has this big bulb, this big cowl, up above the waterline. Ours doesn't.”

The company launched in 2011 and announced a deal with General Motors last winter. The deal is a $150 million investment for a 25% stake in Pure Watercraft. Rebele said it is the largest investment a company has ever made in electric boating.

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Pure Watercraft is building a facility in Tukwila to manufacture pontoon boats and outboard motors. The boats are powered by Pure Watercraft’s outboard motor and have a battery pack supplied by General Motors.

Rebele said he would like to keep the products made in the United States and plans to keep growing the company in Seattle. When talking about the company’s location on Lake Union, he referenced Seattle's Shoreline Master Program, which encourages water-dependent uses of land along the city’s shoreline environments.

“I think Seattle certainly is in the center of [electric boating], and it should be in the center of it,” said Rebele. "We've got water flowing through the center of our city.”

Washington State Department of Ecology records shows that since 2015, recreational vessels have spilled 14,662.5 gallons of fuel. However, the department believes many spills are not reported, which means the number of gallons spilled is likely higher.

“The drops, and the cup here and a cup there, they add up, and it never goes away,” said Aaron Barnett, an environmental outreach specialist with Washington Sea Grant.

Washington Sea Grant is a program through the University of Washington’s College of the Environment. The program studies the challenges facing Washington state’s ocean and coasts. One key job is to educate recreational boaters about small oil spills. But oil spills are a problem eliminated with electric motors.

"[Electrification] is a step in the right direction,” said Barnett. “When I say the right direction, I mean, using technology that's more efficient, is more applicable; that makes more sense; that doesn't create the impacts that we see with oil spill discharge.”

Rebele said pontoons are currently the most popular boat on the market. Pure Watercraft's electric motor is designed to have enough charge to enjoy a day on the water. Dual motors allow the pontoon to travel up to 23 miles per hour.

"It should seem like the boat is just an enhancement to the experience for everyone,” said Rebele. “It should be quiet. There shouldn't be big wakes bothering people. It should not be polluting.”

However, electrification isn't for everything. Battery technology is heavy and relies on a predictable schedule to ensure there is time to re-charge the battery.

“A really good fit for electric is something that does a regular run of a fixed length” said Rebele.

What Rebele is describing is something on a predictable, set schedule, such as the Washington State Ferries (WSF) system. It’s one of the largest consumers of fuel on Washington’s water and an ideal system for electrification.

“Innovation is a necessity,” said Matt von Ruden, the WSF system electrification program administrator. “We have a real opportunity to make an impact here… setting an example for the rest of the country.”

RELATED: With new funding, Washington State Ferries ramps up electric ferry plans

Since 2017, von Ruden and his team have been working to transform WSF, which uses 19 million gallons of diesel every year.

Many of the changes will happen deep inside a vessel’s engine, which is so loud you have to wear hearing protection.

“What we want to do is replace two of the four diesel engines with big battery banks," explained von Ruden. "That way, we can initially drive them like a hybrid vehicle, where we can operate those diesel engines at their peak efficiency. Eventually, a couple years later, we're going to bring electricity from the shore and charge the batteries that way.”

Secured funding of $1.33 billion launched two projects for WSF. The first project is to build new Olympic-class hybrid-electric vessels. The second project transforms four of the state's largest ships, which travel the route between Seattle, Bainbridge Island and Bremerton, into hybrid vessels. The funding also pays for the electrification of the Central Puget Sound Terminal, which will charge the vessels. 

“We think 95% of the time we'll be running in battery-electric mode,” said von Ruden. “So, no diesel exhaust, no rumbling noises of the engine. It'll be electric.”

The plans for the ships are currently under approval and review by the U.S. Coast Guard.

Plans from WSF show the rapid charging system, which is currently in development. Von Ruden described the system as looking like a robotic arm that will move from the dock and plug into the ferry to charge the battery as passengers get on and off the ship.

“It's just the perfect situation because from the mountains we have hydroelectric power, renewable electricity,” said von Ruden. "So, that's what kind of all comes together, the maturity of the lithium-ion batteries, the availability of the renewable electricity, and then the distance is about right where, even for our Seattle to Bremerton run, it's achievable.”

WSF believes it’s one of the first and the largest U.S. ferry systems to transition to hybrid electricity. The innovation is pushing boating into the future, a future with less noise, cleaner water and air.

“The reasons people go out on a boat, they want to connect with nature, and they want to connect with family and friends. They don't want to go out and do harm to the environment,” said Rebele. “They want to connect with it, and this is a better way to connect with nature than any other boat before."

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