A new report has found that 2,300 lobster boats in Nova Scotia’s fleet are ideal candidates for switching from diesel to electric motors, a move that would reduce the fleet’s total emissions by more than 60%.

“When I started on this journey with the stakeholders of writing a report, there was lots of doubt that the batteries would be able to power boats,” Oceans North director of marine climate action Brent Dancey said in an interview. 

“But even through the process of writing this report and seeing other demonstration projects and other projects…we know it’s possible. And there’s a tremendous opportunity in Nova Scotia to be leading the adoption of this technology.”

Titled Nova Scotia Lobster Fleet Electrification Assessment, the Oceans North report was published Thursday. 

“What we’ve done actually is we put sensors on boats and we’ve measured how they use energy throughout a day’s work…We’re able to size the battery to basically push that boat around,” Dancey said. 

“That’s how we’ve come to that calculation. Through data and analysis. And basically we know that the majority, a big chunk of those 2,000 boats, can be powered off a 400 kilowatt hour battery.”

The report by the marine conservation and climate action charity said the province’s lobster fleet produces about 82 million kg of C02 each year. That’s equal to the emissions of 35,000 cars. 

A smiling man wearing a turquoise sweater, black toque and sunglasses in front of the wheel of a small boat in the water.
Oceans North director of marine climate action Brent Dancey. Credit: Oceans North

‘Supporting an often-overlooked sector’

Of all the days fished by the province’s entire lobster fishing fleet, the report said 70% occur within 20 km of their home port. Because of this, they’re within the range of battery-electric systems. 

The report’s authors conclude that about 2,300 lobster boats in the province’s fleet are good candidates for electrification. 

“Our assessment finds that 60% of these vessels could fulfill a day of fishing with less than 400 kWh of energy and are a great fit for battery-electric propulsion systems,” the report said. 

“The remaining 40% of vessels fishing within 20 km of their home port, as well as those fishing further, are expected to be served by either larger battery-electric or fuel cell electric systems.”

Lobster fishing requires more fuel than most other fisheries, resulting in higher emissions and costs. But beyond saving fishers’ fuel and maintenance costs, Dancey said making the switch to battery-electric vessels would put the fishery on a path to meeting Canada’s net-zero-by-2050 emissions targets. 

“Canada and Nova Scotia, every jurisdiction really around the world, has made net zero commitments to align with the overall targets of the Paris commitment,” Dancey said. 

“We saw this sector as needing some help to position themselves so they’re not vulnerable as governments make these plans. It’s really about supporting an often-overlooked sector to think about transitioning to net zero emissions by 2050.”

‘Can’t do it on their own’

Battery-electric propulsion systems result in lower operating costs, but also come with a much steeper price tag. However, the report found that for many vessels, those upfront costs would be offset in the medium-term and reach a break-even point after about 11 years. 

It also highlighted the importance of provincial and federal government support and investment when it comes to decarbonizing the province’s inshore lobster fleet.  

“Sectors, fishermen. people can’t do it on their own,” Dancey said. “There’s a role for government to basically invest and make it possible for these first vessels, because they are more expensive.”

Dancey said it’s also important to note there are technologies and solutions currently available to make this a reality.

“This isn’t about inventing technology to push boats around. It’s really about connecting what’s already happening in the world to this sector,” Dancey explained.

“There are electric batteries pushing thousands of buses around the world. There are hundreds of ferries that have been electrified. So really, it’s about integrating this technology into the lobster vessel.”

As a recent example, Dancey pointed to the world’s first fully electric tugboat launched in BC this July. 

“We’re talking 5,000 kilowatt hours of power. That’s 70 Tesla batteries,” he said. “So when you look at the size and what we’re talking about with these lobster vessels, it’s not out of the realm of possibility. It’s very possible.”

Boom for boat building industry

The report’s authors wrote that moving to battery-electric propulsion systems would make the province a leader in zero-emission vessel technology. In addition, they said the switch would provide opportunities for the province’s boat building industry.

 “The Nova Scotia Boatbuilders Association is excited by the work done in this report,” the association’s executive director Jan Fullerton said in a media release

“Gaining clarity around the market-readiness of leading net-zero solutions, the comparative costs, and the opportunities for the boatbuilding industry is essential to move forward. We’re also pleased to see specific recommendations to help realize the benefits for our industry and the environment.”

Sense of urgency

The report’s authors did express a sense of urgency when it comes to taking action. They noted that lobster vessels and propulsion systems have lifespans of just over 20 years. In order for the lobster fleet to be net-zero by 2050, about 15% of the fleet needs to be powered by renewable energy and zero-emission fuels by the year 2030. 

They wrote that this shift can only occur if government, energy providers, boatbuilders, boat owners and fishers work together.

“Nova Scotians are seeing every day the impacts of climate change. Whether that’s in the form of more frequent and intense storms, whether that’s flooding, or fishers seeing different species in their fish,” Dancey said. 

“I think the impacts of climate change are being felt by Nova Scotians, and I think there’s an opportunity to be a part of the solution. While this sector isn’t responsible for the emissions that are causing these changes, they can certainly be a part of the solution.”

The report’s project team was led by Allswater in collaboration with experts from Dalhousie University, Net Zero Atlantic, Rimot, Nova Scotia Community College, Membertou Fisheries, the Nova Scotia Boatbuilders Association, Kempy Energetics, and Redrock Power Systems. 

“There are barriers, and I think there’s a role for policymakers to underscore that fact. And it’s good to be clear with targets, because that sends a signal to boat builders and to technology providers that there is a market,” Dancey said.

“It also sends a signal that this is where the future is going, so it could help with a measured plan to actually transition these boats over a period of 30 years. This isn’t going to happen overnight, and the first boats aren’t going to be easy.”

Yvette d’Entremont is a bilingual (English/French) journalist and editor who enjoys covering health, science, research, and education.

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