STOWE, Vt. – Snowmobiles are part of the winter soundtrack in this part of Vermont, and at their worst they shatter the stillness of the forest like motorcycles on skis. But motor sleds bouncing down a wooden mountain path in February were quiet except for the rustle of metal skates in the snow.
The machines, made by a Canadian start-up, taiga, they were battery-powered – the first electric snowmobiles to be sold widely – and symbols of how means of transportation of all kinds are migrating towards emission-free propulsion. Taiga also offers battery-powered jet skis, another form of recreation in which the petrol version is considered a scourge in some quarters.
While electric cars get the most attention, electric lawnmowers, boats, bicycles, scooters and off-road vehicles are proliferating. In some categories, battery-powered cars are gaining market share faster than electric cars are taking over the automotive world. The startups are courting investors by claiming to be the Teslas of the boating, cycling, or lawn and garden industry.
The environmental benefits are potentially significant. Unlike cars and trucks, outboard motors or lawn mowers usually don’t have catalytic converters to reduce harmful emissions. They are noisy and often use lower quality fuel. A gasoline-powered lawnmower generates as much pollution in an hour as a 300-mile car trip, according to California Air Resources Council.
California passed legislation to ban gasoline lawnmowers starting in 2024 and all new gasoline-powered vehicles by 2035. But sales of electric alternatives are growing even without a push from the government.
One of the earliest customers for Taiga snowmobiles was Taos Ski Valley in New Mexico, which aims to be an environmentally friendly ski resort. Taos’ patrol and piste maintenance workers will use electric snowmobiles for tasks such as transporting injured skiers or maintaining snowmaking equipment, said David Norden, chief executive of Taos Ski Valley. When skiing resumes this year, Taos also plans to use an electric snow groomer manufactured by Kässbohrer Geländefahrzeug, a German company.
Though electric snowmobiles, which start at $ 17,500, are more expensive than their gasoline-powered counterparts, which can be purchased for under $ 10,000, the resort will save money on fuel and maintenance, Norden said.
“Do the cost-benefit analysis, you’re probably close to breaking even,” he said. “These are not only decisions for the environment, but also good decisions for our bottom line.”
But sometimes people are converting to electricity because it offers practical benefits.
Purchasers of electrical lawn and garden equipment interviewed by the Freedonia Group, a research firm, cited noise reduction, low maintenance costs and the absence of petrol cans in the garage as top priorities. Electric leaf blowers or lawn trimmers are often cheaper and lighter than petrol versions.
The lawn and garden industry went electric faster than the auto industry. In 2020, electric lawn mowers, leaf blowers and other equipment accounted for 17% of the market in the United States, according to Freedonia. That’s more than three times the share of electric vehicles in the US auto market.
A critical year for electric vehicles
As the general automotive market stagnates, the popularity of battery-powered cars is increasing around the world.
Many people are reluctant to buy an electric car because they worry about running out of power away from a charger. Distance anxiety is not a problem in the backyard.
“You’re not worried about taking a road trip with a lawn mower,” said Jennifer Mapes-Christ, Freedonia’s head of commercial and consumer product research.
But electrification of boats and other vehicles often presents technological challenges. Electricity works for small boats or boats that don’t travel very far. It is the only option on the hundreds of lakes where conventional outboard motors are banned due to noise or pollution.
Because water creates so much drag, however, large powerboats require continuous amounts of power beyond what the batteries available today can provide. (Sailboats, of course, have been running on wind power for thousands of years.)
Batteries are “part of the answer to the future, but not necessarily the complete answer,” said David Foulkes, managing director of Brunswick, which manufactures Mercury marine engines.
However, Mercury has unveiled an electric outboard motor prototype and is closely watching the move to electrification.
“We intend to be a leader in this space,” said Foulkes, who drives a battery-powered motor Porsche. “Even though the market is small at the moment, we want to be there and see what the market does.”
Some engineers are taking advantage of the shift to electrification to rethink the design. An offshore racing series known as E1which plans to start hosting events in Miami and other cities next year, will use battery-powered boats equipped with hydrofoils that will lift the hulls above the water, greatly reducing drag.
“We have to change the paradigm,” said Rodi Basso, CEO of E1. “This is what Tesla did.”
Just as Tesla disrupted the auto industry, start-ups are challenging the companies that have long dominated their markets. Sea Stream is one of several companies trying to adapt electric power for jet skis. With the help of $ 15 million in venture capital, it plans to begin selling electric outboard motors made at a facility in Bristol, RI, this summer.
Ben Sorkin, the CEO of Flux Marine, who was a summer intern at Tesla, admitted that battery power was not practical for large deep-sea fishing boats and the like. “Given what is available right now, electric propulsion is a niche market,” Sorkin said.
But he said the market would expand as batteries improved and became practical for bigger and bigger motors. Flux Marine’s largest engine is rated at 70 horsepower and the numbers will continue to grow, Sorkin said.
“Every five years or so, the sweet spot changes,” he said.
Major boat, snowmobile and lawn mower manufacturers have been slow to switch to electric. John Deere, the largest manufacturer of self-propelled lawnmowers, does not offer battery-powered alternatives, but plans to discuss its electrification strategy with investors at an event May 25-26.
The recent history of the automotive industry could serve as a warning to established companies. Just as slow car companies initially gave up territory to Tesla and are trying to catch up, new companies like Taiga are taking advantage of open markets.
Samuel Bruneau, chief executive of Taiga, said electrifying snowmobiles were a challenge because the batteries and motors needed to cope with extreme temperatures and rough terrain.
“No one was entering that space, because it would have required new technology,” he said. “This is the opportunity we have seen.”
Competition is coming. BRP, a Quebec-based company that makes Ski-Doo snowmobiles, off-road vehicles and motor boats, said it will offer electric versions of all of its products by 2026. The company also plans to enter the motorcycle market with a electric two-wheeler line in 2024.
“There is an automobile-driven trend out there,” said José Boisjoli, chief executive of BRP, which is the largest manufacturer of snowmobiles. “We can’t ignore it.”
But he said the transition would be slower in recess. For one thing, the markets are much smaller, which makes it more difficult to achieve the cost savings that come from mass production. In 2021, fewer than 135,000 snowmobiles were sold worldwide, compared to about 60 million cars.
And snowmobiles and speedboats don’t receive the government subsidies or tax breaks that can cut thousands of dollars on the price of an electric car. Charging is also a problem in the woods. Taiga has installed charging stations alongside a popular snowmobile trail network in Quebec and plans more.
But motorcyclists who venture deep into the wild will still prefer gasoline, Boisjoli said. “The engine will be present in the combustion of snowmobiles for a long time,” he said.
Dominic Jacangelo, executive director of the New York State Snowmobile Association, agreed that long-distance riders, who can easily travel more than 100 miles a day, would be skeptical.
However, Mr. Jacangelo said he was eager to try a Taiga. “In terms of performance, you have a sled that will keep up with anything else on the market,” he said.
Since electric snowmobiles are quieter, they could help reduce friction between snowmobiles and people who view machines as an affront to nature. This would open up more land for snowmobiles.
“Of course,” said Jacangelo, “an electric sled will change many environmentalists’ views on the snowmobile.”