Water Power The Tesla of the boating world

Bavarian firm Torqeedo is hoping to become the Tesla of the waters, pushing electric boat motors. But first it has to overcome scepticism about environmentally-friendly power in a sector wedded to diesel.
Power you can't smell.

Christoph Ballin claims he has a simple way to eliminate the same amount of pollution created by 39 diesel cars in a single stroke: Substitute just one traditional 5-horsepower outboard motor with an electric motor from his fast-growing Bavarian firm, Torqeedo.

Torqeedo is the only company in the world that manufactures electric boat motors in serial production. But despite its environmental feats, it still encounters stiff resistance to e-mobility among watersport aficionados.

The fear that car owners initially had of being stranded somewhere on the road with an electric motor is even more pronounced with boat owners afraid of being marooned on the open sea. Mr. Ballin estimates the market share of e-motors on yachts is just 1 percent. The leaves plenty of upside for Torqeedo and a growing list of rivals.

We could replace a thousand boats in Germany alone. Ingo Schiller, Ostseestaal

Mr. Ballin was presenting his line of electric boat motors this week at the Düsseldorf International Boat Show. His math would mean that the dual 325-horsepower Suzuki engines featured at the trade fair emit the equivalent nitrogen oxide of 5,000 diesel cars. According to the co-founder of the company, which is located on Lake Starnberg just outside Munich, even a low-powered outboard with no catalytic converter or exhaust purifications puts out as much nitrogen oxide in an hour as 39 diesel-powered cars traveling at 95 kilometers (60 miles) per hour.

Torqeedo has grown 35 percent a year since its founding in 2005 – long before e-mobility was a buzzword. Cologne-based diesel motor manufacturer Deutz acquired Torqeedo in October as part of its drive into electric and hybrid motors. That has made Mr. Ballin, a former McKinsey consultant, head of strategy for the parent company while continuing as chief executive at Torqeedo. Deutz paid something in the higher two-digit millions for a company that last year had sales topping €25 million ($30 million). Its workforce of 130 delivered 10,000 motors.

Torqeedo doesn’t try to compete with that 325-horsepower outboard or the larger engines installed in superyachts. Sailing yachts up to 80 feet, on the other hand, are very interesting, in Mr. Ballin’s opinion. The motor firm works together with Hanse Yachts, the second-largest serial producer of sailing yachts globally, based in Greifswald on the Baltic Sea.

To help allay concerns about getting stranded, Torqeedo works together with BMW on battery technology, using versions of the high-performance motor batteries going into the automaker’s i3 electric car and the hybrid i8 for its biggest boat motors.

These engines are significantly more expensive than their diesel equivalents, but, as Mr. Ballin notes, someone who can spend hundreds of thousands on a sailing yacht doesn’t need to worry about how much the engine costs. “Luxury sailors want to enjoy nature,” he says, “and not have the stink and noise of a diesel motor while they idle in the bay.”

The BMW link also gives Torqeedo an entrée into commercial ship motors like ferries and water taxis. The company has supplied small passenger ferries in Ottawa and Dubai, for instance.

Other exhibitors at the Düsseldorf show, one of the biggest marine trade fairs in the world, have moved into this niche as well. Austrian machine maker Kräutler is working together with Ostseestaal, a Baltic manufacturer of ship components, to build small ferries and excursion boats. The partners have delivered 10 boats – a ferry on the Mosel River and several excursion boats for Berlin among them – and have 20 on the books for this year.

The potential is much greater. “We could replace a thousand boats in Germany alone,” says Ostseestaal’s Ingo Schillinger, especially the diesel barges that have been plying the country’s rivers for 40 years. It will take some rethinking at the shipyards to make that exchange, however. They all come from a diesel background and as a result hulls are too heavy and engines too high-powered, says Axel Büchling, an engineer at Kräutler.

Planning has to be much more exact for electric-powered boats, because otherwise the cost for batteries and charging technology gets out of hand. Shipyards traditionally have not focused on energy-efficient construction, but that is what’s needed for electric-powered ships, Mr. Büchling says.

Boat owners, too, will have to do some rethinking, much as car owners have. At the Düsseldorf show, Suzuki pulled out all the stops to present that 325-horsepower motor. A hostess dramatically unveiled the motor itself, as a big as a tall man, and then ran a video with a speedboat roaring across an azure sea.

It reminded Mr. Ballin of another presentation at the Amsterdam boat show. One manager there touted the trends for deep sea fishing yachts with photos of boats sporting three 300-horsepower motors mounted on the stern. Mr. Ballin just shrugs: “I just always think – you go your way, I’ll go mine.”

Jakob Blume covers companies and markets for Handelsblatt. Darrell Delamaide is a writer and editor for Handelsblatt Global in Washington, DC. To contact the authors: [email protected] and [email protected].