At the top of the world, a quiet revolution is taking place. In Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago just over 1,000 km from the North Pole, a marine engineering company, boat builder and tour operator are piloting a program they hope will convince the world – or at least some additional customers – that commercial boats don’t need to be powered by smelly, spitting diesels. Instead, they could use something altogether more modern: a hybrid-electric drivetrain.
The diagram works as follows: marine engineering company VolvoPenta built a state-of-the-art hybrid-electric drivetrain that powers a boat built by Marell. This package is then sold to a tour operator called Hurtigruten, which operates Norwegian ferries and boat trips to Svalbard. This is where it gets interesting. Hurtigruten will not buy the boat, it will pay for it by the hour.
The goal here is to tempt a shipping industry that is skeptical, risk averse and wary of sinking costs into new technologies to test the waters. ‘You pay by the hour. We are worried about the future”, is the pitch in a nutshell. Volvo Penta still owns and maintains the boat’s machinery; Hurtigruten is content to exploit it.
Why test it in the wild, frozen North? Well, whether intended or not, the Volvo Penta system makes a lot of sense here. The Arctic soundtrack is one of silence. There is almost nothing here to make noise. Disturbing the peace with the blast of a diesel engine, while trying to sneak up on a polar bear, one of the planet’s fiercest predators, seems counterproductive at best.
And just as important, a boat that makes little noise and has less impact on the environment as you explore the breathtaking beauty of the archipelago will appeal to environmentally conscious clients. Also, if it works here, where the ice cubes are as tall as the people, it should work everywhere else in the world.
Svalbard also makes a lot of sense as an early adopter, as it is under serious threat from climate change. The archipelago is one of the most climatically sensitive areas on Earth. Average temperatures here have increased by 1.7°C over the past decade, twice the Arctic average and seven times the global average.
More than anything else, these changes will affect polar bears who stalk the sea ice in search of resting seals. As the sea ice recedes, so do the bears. So the people who live here have to deal with a conflict, which is playing out all over the planet: when your livelihood depends on tourism, can you continue to earn a living in a way that is sustainable for your future and that of the planet ?
One boat won’t answer a question as broad as that, but as I was lucky enough to be invited to see this pioneering boat, I can at least share my thoughts. There’s an obvious parallel in the auto industry that’s almost a cliche to conjure up, but, that said, I’m hoping this could be a “Tesla” moment for tour boats. The Kvitbjørn (polar bear in Norwegian) is a brilliant innovation which, for this passenger, made a convincing argument.
First, let’s recognize a few things. Kvitbjørn is still a hybrid; there is still a diesel engine to cross the large bodies of water between the peninsulas. In a place where being abandoned means risking getting stuck in sea ice, I can understand why a captain might want to keep their engines. The boat is not completely silent either. Standing on deck you can hear the roar of the motor and gears as they power small thrusters below, but honestly I’ve used louder galley equipment.
On the pack ice, where water begins to clump into crystals and glaciers glow blue as they meet the coast, the calm feels like a blanket. The Kvitbjørn feels sensitive to this, doing its best to give way on occasion. There are no noxious diesel fumes or noisy engines to spoil the moment.
In fact, you don’t even have to drop anchor, there is a virtual one. “Drop it” and electric thrusters hold the ship in place, pulsing to keep it from running away with the currents. Volvo Penta does not yet know whether the boat is quieter underwater – and therefore more marine-friendly than a traditional engine – but hopes to test it and see how it performs on a reef.
If you’re tempted to sell all your properties in order to start operating your own tour boat, then luckily you’ll probably be able to drive Kvitbjørn too. I did it. There’s a traditional steering wheel, alongside a much niftier joystick that allows the boat to be turned in place and side to side without having to turn. It’s like a video game.
So, is this small project enough to change the world? Who can tell, but Volvo Penta and Hurtigruten believe there is a huge amount of travel – and not just for tourists – that could be fully powered by electricity, and this is a step towards that future.
This driver is not unique. Volvo Penta’s ambition is to extend this system to all its machines and provide buyers with an electric option. And what about that diesel? Well, Volvo Penta is optimistic that greener (and non-fossil) fuels will help sailors make the switch as battery ranges extend.
Either way, I’ll probably never look at a boat trip the same way again.
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