STOWE, Vt. – Snowmobiles are part of the wintry soundtrack in this part of Vermont, and at worst they shatter the stillness of the forest like motorbikes on skis. But the snowmobiles, skipping down a forested mountain trail in February, were silent save for the hiss of metal skids on snow.
The machines, made by a Canadian startup, Taiga, were battery-powered – the first widely used electric snowmobiles – and symbols of how transportation of all kinds is migrating to zero-emission powertrains. Taiga also offers battery-powered personal watercraft, another form of recreation where the petrol version is seen as the scourge in some circles.
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Although electric cars get the most attention, electric lawn mowers, boats, bikes, scooters, and ATVs are proliferating. In some categories, battery-powered machines are gaining market share faster than electric cars are taking over the automotive world. Startup companies court investors by claiming to be the Teslas of the boat, bike, or lawn and garden industries.
The environmental benefits are potentially significant. Unlike cars and trucks, outboard engines or lawn mowers usually do not have catalytic converters to reduce harmful emissions. They are noisy and often use inferior fuel. According to the California Air Resources Board, a gasoline lawnmower causes as much pollution in one hour as driving a 300-mile car.
California has passed legislation to ban gas-powered mowers by 2024 and all new gas-powered vehicles by 2035. But sales of electric alternatives are growing even without a government push.
One of the first customers for Taiga snowmobiles was Taos Ski Valley in New Mexico, which markets itself as an environmentally conscious ski resort. Taos ski patrol and trail maintenance staff will use the electric snowmobiles for tasks like transporting injured skiers or maintaining snow machines, said David Norden, CEO of Taos Ski Valley. When skiing resumes this year, Taos also plans to use an electric snow groomer made by German company Kässbohrer Geländefahrzeug.
Even though the electric snowmobiles, which start at $17,500, are more expensive than gasoline counterparts, which can be had for less than $10,000, the resort saves money on fuel and maintenance, Norden said.
“If you do the cost-benefit analysis, you’re probably close to breakeven,” he said. “These are not only choices for the environment, but also good choices for our bottom line.”
But sometimes people switch to electric power because of its practical benefits.
Electric lawn and garden equipment buyers surveyed by the Freedonia Group, a research firm, cited noise reduction, low maintenance costs and no need to store gas cans in the garage as their top priorities. Electric leaf blowers or grass trimmers are often cheaper and lighter than petrol versions.
The lawn and garden industry has gone electric faster than the auto industry. In 2020, electric mowers, leaf blowers and other equipment accounted for 17% of the market in the United States, according to Freedonia. That’s more than three times the share of electric vehicles in the US auto market.
Many people are reluctant to buy an electric car for fear of running out of power far from a charger. Range anxiety is not a problem in the backyard.
“You don’t worry when you go on a road trip with a lawnmower,” said Jennifer Mapes-Christ, director of commercial and consumer product research at Freedonia.
But the electrification of boats and other vehicles often brings with it technological challenges. Electric power works for smaller watercraft or boats that don’t go very far. It’s the only option on the hundreds of lakes where conventional outboard motors are banned due to noise or pollution.
However, because water creates so much drag, large power boats require amounts of continuous power in excess of what batteries available today can provide. (Sailboats have, of course, been powered by wind for thousands of years.)
Batteries are “part of the answer for the future, but not necessarily the complete answer,” said David Foulkes, CEO of Brunswick, the maker of Mercury marine engines.
Nonetheless, Mercury has unveiled a prototype electric outboard motor and is closely watching the transition to electrification.
“We want to be leaders in this area,” said Foulkes, who drives a battery-powered Porsche. “Even if the market is small at the moment, we want to be there and see what the market is doing.”
Some engineers are using the move to electrification to rethink design. An offshore racing series known as E1, which plans to host events in Miami and other cities next year, will use battery-powered boats equipped with hydrofoils that elevate the hulls above the water and greatly reduce drag.
“We need to change the paradigm,” said E1 CEO Rodi Basso. “Tesla did that.”
Just as Tesla disrupted the auto industry, startup companies are challenging companies that have long dominated their markets. Flux Marine is one of several companies trying to adapt electric power for watercraft. With the help of $15 million in venture capital, the company plans to begin selling electric outboard motors made at a facility in Bristol, Rhode Island, this summer.
Ben Sorkin, CEO of Flux Marine, who was a summer internship at Tesla, acknowledged that battery power isn’t practical for large offshore fishing boats and the like. “Electric propulsion is a niche market given what’s currently available,” Sorkin said.
But he said the market would grow as batteries improved and became viable for larger and larger engines. Flux Marine’s largest engine is rated at 70 hp, and the numbers are set to keep rising, Sorkin said.
“About every five years, the sweet spot shifts up,” he said.
Major manufacturers of boats, snowmobiles and lawn mowers have been slow to go electric. John Deere, the largest maker of self-propelled mowers, does not offer battery-powered alternatives but plans to discuss its electrification strategy with investors at an event on May 25-26.
The recent history of the auto industry could serve as a warning to incumbents. Just as sluggish car companies initially ceded territory to Tesla and are trying to catch up, new companies like Taiga are taking advantage of wide-open markets.
Taiga CEO Samuel Bruneau said electrifying snowmobiles is challenging because the batteries and motors have to withstand extreme temperatures and rough terrain.
“No one came into this space because it would require new technology,” he said. “This is the opportunity we saw.”
competition is coming. BRP, a Quebec-based company that makes Ski-Doo snowmobiles as well as ATVs and powerboats, has announced it will offer electric versions of all of its products by 2026. The company also plans to enter the motorcycle market with a range of electric two-wheelers in 2024.
“There’s a trend out there that’s being driven by the automobile,” said José Boisjoli, CEO of BRP, the largest snowmobile manufacturer. “We can’t ignore it.”
But he said the transition would be slower in leisure. For one, the markets are much smaller, making it harder to achieve the cost savings that come with mass production. In 2021 fewer than 135,000 snowmobiles were sold worldwide compared to around 60 million cars.
And snowmobiles and motorboats don’t get the government subsidies or tax breaks that can shave thousands of dollars off the price of an electric car. Charging is also an issue in the forest. Taiga has installed charging stations along a popular network of snowmobile trails in Quebec and plans to add more.
But snowmobilers venturing deep into the wilderness will still prefer gasoline, Boisjoli said. “The internal combustion engine will be present in snowmobiles for a long time,” he said.
Dominic Jacangelo, executive director of the New York State Snowmobile Association, agreed that long-distance snowmobilers, who can easily cover more than 100 miles a day, would be skeptical.
Despite this, Jacangelo said he was eager to try a taiga. “In terms of performance, you have a sled that rivals anything else on the market,” he said.
Because electric snowmobiles are quieter, they could help reduce friction between snowmobilers and people who see the machines as an affront to nature. That would open up more terrain for snowmobiles.
“Sure,” Jacangelo said, “an electric sled will change the way a lot of environmentalists view snowmobiling.”
This article originally appeared in The New York times.
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https://www.boston.com/news/business/2022/05/15/the-tesla-effect-snowmobiles-boats-and-mowers-go-electric/ Snowmobiles, boats and lawn mowers are going electric