The green revolution and boating

John Devonald peers into his crystal ball.

Some of you will have seen NABO’s bulletin on sustainable boating in the future and our decision to push hydrotreated vegetable oil (HVO) as the best solution for boaters. This article is to put some flesh on the bones of the bulletin article and the reasons we have come to this decision. I will mainly be discussing electric and HVO as other potential fuels, like hydrogen and fuel cells, are really just non-starters at present.

Green has become one of the most important topics over the last few years with the Government making promises to cut carbon footprints, plastic waste and emissions. We have seen political demonstrations, the results of climate change in the weather, and the rise of the electric car as the future of motoring in the UK. Inland waterways users are going to be caught up in this spiral towards the green future so we need to try and move this in a direction that we boaters are comfortable with, both in the ‘green’ aspect and the financial implications.

As mentioned, the future of motoring is electric. The government has said no new diesel and petrol cars will be allowed after 2030 and many manufacturers will soon make only electric and hybrid cars. Some people think the future of boating on the inland waterways will mirror this, with hybrid and electric boats gaining ascendency. There are boat builders successfully making these now and I’m sure they will become more commonplace over the years. However, we in NABO cannot see this becoming the practical way forward for us to support in the present economic and social climate.

We have no idea what the future holds for us. The Government could ignore the boating world as being not big enough to warrant looking at, or we could get caught up in a total ban on the sale of diesel to anyone; we just don’t know. The IWA has come up with its ‘green future’ document and CRT is in the process of writing its own, which will be interesting reading when it is published and we have added our own view to the discussion.

The obvious future would seem to be electric. The technology is out there and well tested, but as you dig deeper, the impracticability of full electrification on the canals and rivers is almost insurmountable. First, what parallels can we draw with the car industry? Well, not so many actually. Cars have a finite life, 15 or 20 years after the Government implements its ‘no more internal combustion engined cars’ policy. Most of them will have been scrapped and the fuel industry won’t make enough to keep petrol stations open, so that will hasten their demise. Boats last much longer. Even ignoring heritage boats, there are many from the 70s and 80s still going strong and will be for many more years. You cannot expect boaters to replace perfectly good boats, which in some cases are their homes, with new ones costing in excess of £100,000. It’s just not going to happen.

The alternative would be converting your boat to electric. I have been told that the cost to do that to a conventional boat would be in excess of £15,000 and looking at my own boat I can well imagine it. My engine space is tiny with no room for a battery bank, even with the diesel engine removed. It would have to be structurally modified to fit the batteries where my bedroom now is. Not ideal as I would have to totally reconfigure my accommodation.

Electric cars are designed and built to certain standards. The batteries are designed to take fast charges safely, so in modern cars you can get to something like 80% charge in 30 minutes and also charge them overnight off a home charger. Boats have no such standards. A battery bank is what the builder decides to put in, be it lithium, lead acid, AGM or whatever. In most cases, charging comes from 16-amp bollards and a full charge takes a long time. An all-electric trip boat in our marina uses both a 32-amp and a 16-amp supply to fully charge its battery bank overnight, which brings us nicely onto the biggest obstacle to electric boats: charging. How can you charge up when on the cut? There is talk from some quarters about a massive electrification of the waterways, with power bollards springing up at all the popular moorings so people can recharge their boats. In an ideal world that might be a feasible proposition, but CRT is struggling to maintain the present system, so any electrification would have to be government financed. I do not see why it would do that for a relatively small number of boaters when they haven’t yet done anything for people with electric cars who don’t have driveways on which to recharge their cars. If it happens, they will be so few and far between as to be practically useless, except as eco-points like the London moorings. An electric canal system is going to limit people to marina moorings and short trips within the range of the battery bank. How the 5,000 or so continuous cruisers will manage in this situation is questionable as even the biggest solar array is not going to stand a chance of keeping the batteries charged, except maybe in mid-summer.

Along with electric, let’s look at hybrid boats. These will work. You have batteries and when they become depleted you either have a small diesel generator to recharge them or you plug into a power point. Figures from testing show this to be more efficient than a conventional narrowboat and you have the ability to run emission-free when going through cities and locks. Of course, the problem with hybrid boats is you still need diesel. In the event of a total diesel ban they are rendered as obsolete as a conventional boat.

At NABO, we have come to the conclusion that only a direct replacement for diesel fuel is going to allow the continuation of boating as we want it. HVO fits the bill. It is a paraffinic diesel fuel that can be used as a direct replacement for mineral diesel. It is a fossil-free, low carbon product made from 100% renewable waste, residues and vegetable oils. It gives sizeable reductions in greenhouse gas and exhaust emissions. It also significantly reduces nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions and particulate matter. As HVO has no fatty acid methyl ester (FAME) content, it significantly reduces the risk of microbial growth (diesel bug) and water ingress to which standard diesel products can be susceptible. This means you have less exposure to fuel contamination and less risk when storing it for long periods of time. From one of the websites promoting HVO, the benefits of this fuel are:

  • FAME-free, fossil-free and sulphur-free;
  • Year-round performance and exceptional cold-weather performance;
  • Up to 90% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions;
  • Shelf-life of up to ten years compared to one year for mineral diesel;
  • A simple step towards ‘net zero’ with no capital expenditure requirement;
  • 100% hydrocarbon, sustainable, renewable and biodegradable;
  • Clean burning, reducing particulate build-up and engine wear;
  • Drop-in alternative for mineral diesel (conforming to EN15940) and approved by numerous original equipment manufacturers;
  • Produced from renewable and sustainable sources.

Of course, what we are really interested in are its green credentials and the fact that it is a direct replacement for mineral diesel with no machinery modifications. Also, it doesn’t cost too much more than mineral diesel at 10 – 15% more expensive.

To summarise we really cannot see a downside to HVO except the higher cost. There is already a fuel boat on the Thames supplying it and its introduction means no huge expense to CRT, the Government, marinas and, most importantly, us boaters. Therefore it is NABO’s choice for the future and we hope other organisations will agree and join us in promoting HVO for sustainable boating.