Our electric future: Maine mechanics prepare to service electric boats

A regional nonprofit has partnered with educators on a three-part training course to help prepare technicians to work on electric boats.
Boats docked in Portland, Maine during a snowy winter.
An icy waterfront in Portland. Photo by Corey Templeton/Creative Commons via Energy News Network.

Electric boats will soon be docking along Maine’s rocky coast.

A new training program aims to help boat mechanics prepare to service them, with the goal of speeding up the adoption of these cleaner-running vessels.

The Island Institute, a nonprofit focused on supporting the needs of Maine’s coastal and island communities, has partnered with Maine Electric Boat, the Maine community college system, and the Mid-Coast School of Technology to develop a three-part training course that it hopes will create stable, sustainable career opportunities for Maine residents while boosting the confidence of would-be electric boat buyers.

“The movement to electric engines makes sense and it’s going to be really valuable — and it’s going to be here before we know it. To have training already set up is really important,” said Robert Deetjen, director of program partner Mid-Coast School of Technology, a technical school serving high school students and offering adult education and college courses.

Maine’s working waterfront is a major part of its economy and culture. With 3,400 miles of coastline — more than California, despite having roughly one-fifth the land area — the state is home to a lobster industry valued at more than $1 billion annually, a robust commercial fishing business, and a growing aquaculture sector. And the largely fossil fuel-powered boats that support all this activity are mostly inefficient and carbon-intensive — on average, one hour of boating is the equivalent of driving a car 800 miles, said Matt Tarpey, co-founder of Maine Electric Boat Co., based in the coastal town of Biddeford.

So as Maine pursues its target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050, getting cleaner vessels on the water will be essential.

“Maine is a unique place where there are an awful lot of vehicles that don’t have wheels,” Tarpey said. “And they’re out on the water causing damage.”

At the same time, electric boats offer benefits to their owners that go beyond the environmental. Without the need to regularly fill the tank, electric boats have lower operating costs. They are generally far lower-maintenance than gas and diesel engines as well. Yet obstacles to adoption remain, including higher up-front costs and the concern that, at this early stage, there won’t be a support network when something goes wrong with the new technology.

“If we’re going to expand to electric boats, we’re going to need somebody to work on those motors,” said Joseph L’Africain, director for instructional design and assessment with the Maine community college system.

The Island Institute saw an intersection between these dynamics and its goal of bolstering workforce development in the clean energy economy. In late 2021, the organization reached out to educational and business partners. After a year of collaboration, the team launched the first part of an anticipated three-course training sequence in late December 2022.

The first course is a free, 90-minute online video training that offers an overview of electric boats, their likely growth in Maine, and the career opportunities available in the field. At the conclusion of the course, participants can complete a quiz to earn a digital badge from Kennebec Valley Community College, a way of representing a set of skills of knowledge. In the month since the first level of training was released, more than 100 people have signed up and 25 have earned their digital badges.

Two additional courses are expected to launch this spring and summer.

“The second and third courses are going to be much smaller and much more geared toward people who have some prior knowledge or are really interested in the field,” said Yvonne Thomas, senior community development officer with the Island Institute.

The second course, to be taught primarily online with some in-person components, will delve into the science of electricity and electrical propulsion, grounding students in the theory of how electric boats work. The third level will involve intensive hands-on training, letting students take apart and perform maintenance on electric outboard motors. These two levels will have a fee associated with them, but Thomas expects to be able to use grant funding and other programs to subsidize most participants so there is little to no cost in the end.

It is unlikely any students will end up finding full-time work in electric boat repair and maintenance at this point, Thomas acknowledged. The program, however, will equip aspiring and existing boat technicians with the skills to remain relevant — and employable — as the market inevitably evolves, she said.

Once the courses are up and running, they will be offered through interested community colleges. Kennebec Valley Community College is already on board and others have expressed interest. The concept may even extend beyond Maine: The Island Institute has even heard from an organization in Alaska that is interested in adopting the program.

“It should be pretty portable and pretty replicable,” Thomas said. “It has been really exciting to see the response.”


This story originally appeared in Energy News Network and is republished here with permission.


Sarah Shemkus

Sarah Shemkus is a journalist who covers business, technology, sustainability, and the places they all meet. She has covered the workings of small-town government in New Hampshire, the doings of alleged swindlers and con men, and the minutiae of local food systems. Her work has appeared in the Guardian, the Boston Globe, The Atlantic, Slate, and other publications.
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