Currents of Change: New State Grants to Amp Up Electric Future for Michigan’s Great Lakes

By Kyle Kaminski

August 4, 2023

More than $500,000 in state grants awarded this week are set to establish what will become an evolving network of shore-side charging facilities for electric boats operating on the Great Lakes.

MICHIGAN—Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has some electric dreams for the Great Lakes.

This week, her administration announced that six recipients were awarded $506,000 in grant funding to build out electric boat charging stations at several marinas across the shores of the Great Lakes. Whitmer said the first-of-its-kind program is centered on building out sustainable infrastructure solutions for the state’s waterways, while also helping to protect the Great Lakes. 

“By expanding access to e-boats and charging solutions, Michigan will further foster a thriving mobility ecosystem that supports local businesses, enhances community offerings and boosts overall economic growth,” she said in a statement. “It’s a testament to our commitment to sustainable innovation and the immense value we place on our precious water resources.”

Whitmer first launched the Fresh Coast Maritime Challenge in April, with the goal of offering companies of all sizes a sustainable, cost-effective and efficient means of transitioning their watercraft from diesel to electric power. It also aims to electrify more marinas across the Great Lakes—all to help curb pollution and carbon emissions, and ultimately combat climate change. 

“With this first round of grant funding, Michigan is embarking on a monumental journey to build out its waterway transit systems, setting a precedent that can influence best practices nationwide,” Kathryn Snorrason, interim state Chief Mobility Officer, said in a statement. 

The first cohort of six companies and organizations to receive grants include:

  • Arc, a California-based electric boat manufacturer, will receive $20,000 to conduct technology demonstrations of high-performance EV boats. It will also partner with local organizations, businesses, and universities to create public events for EV boating.

 

  • Aqua superPower will receive $111,000 to install fast marine chargers and conduct technology demonstrations at Michigan-based marinas, including Duncan Clinch Marina in Traverse City, the Village of Charlevoix Marina, and Harbor Springs. The company currently has chargers at the Elk Rapids Marina and the Village of Northport.

 

  • Hercules Electric Mobility will receive $75,000 to develop and deploy boats with high-power electric powertrains. It will also host demonstrations and collect data on consumer acceptance of EV boats and mobile marine charging systems.

 

  • Lilypad Labs, a Michigan-based startup, will receive $135,000 to deploy accessible, solar-powered watercraft for public use at marinas and resorts across Northwest Michigan—starting with a deployment at Fountain Point Resort on Lake Leelanau.

 

  • Michigan Technological University will receive $50,000 for its faculty and students to partner with local utilities and marinas to determine how far people can travel from their home docks, the optimal distance between charging stations, charging times and costs, as well as how much energy is needed to support a specific number of chargers.

 

  • Voltaic Marine, Inc., which develops high-performance electric water sports boats, will receive $115,000 to explore and develop Michigan-based strategies focused on advanced manufacturing, battery chemistry, propulsion and emerging technology job creation. It will also demonstrate its flagship model, the AEW24, in Northwest Michigan.

Megawatts on Mackinac—and Beyond

Your next trip to Mackinac Island could also be a bit friendlier for the environment—and much quieter—after one of the area’s most popular ferry companies decided earlier this year to ditch the 35-year-old diesel engines on one of its ferries for zero-emission, all-electric power. 

In March, the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy announced a $3 million grant to Mackinac Island Ferry Co., formerly known as Star Line, to remove the 1988 diesel engines on a ferry called the Chippewa and replace them with two new electric motors. 

Officials said the electrification of the ferry is part of a two- to three-year overhaul that will also involve redesigning and modernizing the vessel’s hull and overall appearance. The grant also jumpstarted what Whitmer and state officials view as a new, electric future for the Great Lakes.

“Our mobility leadership must extend from electric cars and buses on the road to industrial power and watercraft, too,” Whitmer said in a statement earlier this year. 

(Photo via Star Line Mackinac Island Ferry)

The new ferry motor is expected to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 14,152 metric tons of carbon dioxide over the course of its lifetime—which is roughly the equivalent to the amount that would be produced by 3,000 typical, gasoline-powered passenger vehicles in a single year.

The state Fuel Transformation Program grant—which is funded through a $64.8 million settlement with Volkswagen—will cover half of the cost of the project, as well as fund other investments in electric power infrastructure in other parts of the state. State officials said the investment will help to keep the ferry cost-effective and sustainable for decades to come. 

Eventually, state officials aim to convert 27 more Mackinac Island ferries to electric power as part of the Mackinac Economic Alliance’s latest strategic plan to create full-time, year-round marine and shipbuilding jobs in the straits region. The long-term goal of the Mackinac Island Transportation Master Plan is to transition 138 large ships to electric or hybrid-electric power.

New shore power infrastructure at the Mackinac City ferry dock—part of broader power upgrades planned for St. Ignace and Mackinac Island—are also covered by the new grant.

“This project is a first critical step in the strategy to upgrade and modernize marine transportation in the straits,” Mackinac Economic Alliance Director Chris Byrnes said in a statement. “Of course, Mackinac Island is famous for alternative modes of transportation, as cars are not allowed on the island. Everyone walks, rides bikes or horses and, of course, ferry boats, so the island is already a Michigan leader in alternative forms of transportation.”

After converting the Chippewa to electric power, Mackinac Island Ferry Co. officials said they intend to similarly upgrade the propulsion systems on its seven other steel vessels that operate passenger or freight service to Mackinac Island. Eventually, the company will evaluate its seven high-speed aluminum passenger vessels for upgrades to electric or hybrid electric propulsion.

In a related move in January, state officials announced that plans for a new, more efficient, reliable, and environmentally friendly Charlevoix-to-Beaver Island passenger ferry would proceed after a $6.6 million federal grant added to a prior $14 million investment from the state.

A separate $2.2 million Fuel Transformation Program grant is also set to cover two-thirds of the cost to install electric shore power at an international dock downstream from the Soo Locks. Officials said the shore power, supplied by nearly 50% renewable energy, will reduce the need for docked vessels to idle their engines, lowering carbon emissions and improving air quality.

A Demo Day for various electric boat technologies is set for 2-5 p.m. on Aug. 24 at the Elk Rapids Marina. The demonstrations are open to the public. Click here to register for the event.  

READ MORE: Michigan Set to Build Out New Electric Vehicle Charging Networks

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Author

  • Kyle Kaminski

    Kyle Kaminski is an award-winning investigative journalist with more than a decade of experience covering news across Michigan. Prior to joining The ‘Gander, Kyle worked as the managing editor at City Pulse in Lansing and as a reporter for the Traverse City Record-Eagle.

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