Cleaning Up the Chesapeake Bay, One Electric Motor at a Time

When Sally Reuther was eight, she and her cousins built a raft on the four acres behind their grandmother's house in Kentucky, intending to float it on a little land-locked pond. They spent two days building it out of whatever wood they could find, even 'borrowing' one of her grandmother's sheets to use as a sail. When it was ready, they dragged it to edge of the pond and pushed it in. It sank. "That was my first experience with boating," says Reuther, 56, of Eastport, Md. Fifty years later and the petite, unassuming Reuther, is the captain of her own sailboat.

(Watch this video featuring Sally Reuther.)

Reuther, a former university and high school teacher of dramatic arts originally from Dayton, Ohio, didn't even see the ocean until she was 27. Now, water and boating are central to her life. After spending a year in the Caribbean living on her sailboat along with her husband, David DiQuinzio and their son, Michael, Reuther now lives blocks away from the Eastport Marina, where she keeps her sailboat as well as an electric propulsion boat called Energetic. Reuther began selling electric marine motors in an effort to help clean up the Chesapeake Bay, the health of which has been on a steady decline since the mid-1900s. Reuther says when they moved to Eastport they were cautioned about letting their dogs swim in the bay because the water is so polluted: "That just amazed me. Here we are on a beautiful body of water, and we can't use it, people can't swim in it."

(Learn about the history of Chesapeake Bay aquatic life.)

Runoff and effluent from farm fertilizers, sewage systems and impervious surfaces have made swimming often risky and, combined with overfishing, have decimated marine life in the Bay, once a bountiful and rich estuary. Since the 1600s, the bay has lost half of its forested shorelines, over half of its wetlands, over 5 million acres to development, nearly 80 percent of its underwater grasses and more than 98 percent of its oysters. Gone are the mountainous oyster reefs that often made sailing treacherous, but that served as mini-water filtration systems, pulling silt out of the water and creating such clarity that early settlers could see to a depth of twenty feet in some places. Today, you're lucky if you can see a foot below the surface.

Getting all the stakeholders on board to uphold and complete a clean-up plan established by EPA in 1983 has been a slow and difficult process, although a new study released in November indicates that conditions are improving. Nevertheless, the area has lost many of its fisheries and is losing a water-centric way of life that goes back many generations.

Along with all the runoff that is regularly dumped into the bay, there is the added burden of pollutants from diesel marine engines. Reuther hopes to change this. "Part of the reason we got into this business with electric motors," she says, "is because of our love for the water. And what we see happening every day in the bay is it's getting dirtier and dirtier." Boating that uses diesel fuel isn't helping.

(Check out the health of the Chesapeake Bay in this Report Card.)

According to the Maryland Boat Registry, there are 193,259 motorized boats registered in the state and all those that have diesel engines give off emissions. The EPA regulates diesel marine engines, which are "among the highest contributors of hydrocarbons (HC) and oxides of nitrogen (NOx) emissions in many areas of the country," adding to both air and water pollution. In fact, nitrogen oxides that result from fossil-fuel burning are considered to be a major source of nitrogen-based nutrients to the Chesapeake Bay, contributing an estimated one-third of the total amount of nitrogen that enters the estuary each year. In addition, "hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxide contribute to ground-level ozone pollution in the summertime."

Reuther hopes the concept of electric marine motors will catch on and will help reduce diesel emissions. Far from a new concept, electric propulsion has been around since the 1800s and was even used in boats at the Chicago World's Fair in 1893. The first submarine purchased by the U.S. Navy in 1900 had an electric motor. Today, many cruise liners operate with hybrid diesel-electric engines.

Reuther says she and DiQuinzio got into electric motors because they got tired of dealing with the problems they were having with the diesel motor on their sailboat. As an electrical engineer, the electric motor technology came naturally to DiQuinzio. Reuther says she likes how quiet the motor is; however, the real reason they started the business was because of their love of the bay: "As we started learning more about this, we started learning more about what really happens with a diesel motor. That [water] exhaust that comes out of the back end of your boat -- that's not just water coming out of there, that's unburned fuel, [and] that's going right into our waterways."

In 2010, the couple started Annapolis Hybrid Marine (Reuther is CEO, DiQuinzio CTO), where they sell Thoosa motor systems manufactured by ASMO Marine in Copenhagen, Denmark. Energetic, their demo boat, is a 21-foot converted diesel skiff outfitted with a 5-kilowatt, inboard electric motor that runs off of four 12-volt batteries (Reuther says the worst part about the conversion was cleaning up the diesel fuel buildup from the diesel motor). There is a controller unit that tells the batteries, the motor and the battery monitor what to do. The battery monitor acts like a fuel gauge, indicating how much time is left on the batteries. The amount of time the batteries last depends upon the speed at which the boat is operated. For example, at Energetic's maximum speed of 6 knots per hour (kph), the batteries would last about three quarters of an hour before they would run down to 30 percent and need to be recharged, whereas, a lower speed of 3 kph would provide five or six hours of cruising time.

"That [water] exhaust that comes out of the back end of your boat -- that's not just water coming out of there, that's unburned fuel, [and] that's going right into our waterways."

The batteries charge just like any other rechargeable battery, by being plugged into the local grid and they can be charged with solar panels and wind turbines. For longer cruises that rely more on motoring than sailing, the batteries can be charged with diesel generators. Although there is still diesel fuel use, diesel generators burn fuel more efficiently than diesel boat motors, which are especially inefficient when used at slower speeds such as when going in and out of marinas or for trawling.

Electric motors are appropriate for boats that aren't intended to sustain high speeds for long periods, so sailboats are excellent candidates. Reuther sells motors as big as 66 horsepower, which will easily propel a 60-foot sailboat. The motors are perfect for small launches and trawler powerboats up to 32 feet. Environmental monitoring and polluter patrol organizations would find them useful because they're so quiet, it's possible to hear everyone on board talking, even those who might be below deck, and the motors don't disturb nature. The Annapolis Harbor Patrol runs a 26-foot aluminum patrol boat that was recently retrofitted with a diesel-electric hybrid motor. Harbormaster J.P. Walters said, "You couldn't get the smile off my face with a chisel," when asked how he liked the quiet, new hybrid engine. According to Reuther, "With an electric motor you're not impeding on nature, you're part of nature."

Reuther says that electric motors are not necessarily appropriate for powerboats that go 15 to 25 kph because the battery technology is not yet capable of providing sustained higher speeds, although a Swiss company sells boats that they say go as fast as 60 kph using a big 162-horsepower (120 kilowatt) engine and lighter weight, lithium-polymer batteries from a military outfitter.

Another major benefit to electric marine motors is that the boats don't have to be winterized like diesel-powered boats, so they can be used any time of the year. Funnily enough, Energetic brought Santa Claus into the Annapolis Parade of Lights (a Christmas boat parade) this year because many of the conventional boats were in winter storage and "we were the only ones in the marina that could bring him in by boat." Even Santa's into clean energy.

"With an electric motor you're not impeding on nature, you're part of nature."

Reuther says a major part of the business at this point is educating the public about electric propulsion. They attend boat shows and talk to people about how it can make boating more enjoyable and cleaner, and they've found that interest in and knowledge about electric propulsion is growing. While Reuther recognizes that electric motors may never completely replace diesel because of all the power that diesel fuel produces, she says, "We're making electric propulsion an option so we have fuel where it needs to be and other options where they need to be; we're cleaning everything up, making it a better place for us to live and for our kids to live." She's come a long way from that sunken raft in Kentucky, and it's a cruise she's been proud to take.

Originally published on Ecocentric blog.