‘Whisper-quiet’ solar boats create buzz on Lake Leelanau

Since early August, solar-powered boat prototypes “Lily” and “Padmé” have been gliding the glassy waters of Lake Leelanau, silently transporting their passengers along whatever type of boating adventure they might care to enjoy.

Anchored as a swim raft? No problem. A slide of the controller starts and stops the motor. 

A gathering of friends for a picnic dinner party on the water? Done. There’s room for up to six adults in the central seating area, with no gasoline fumes or noise to interrupt the ambiance.

Even landlubbers can pilot this craft as they visit — it can turn on a dime and go forward, back, or even sideways with the push of a joystick.

Up for a whole day of cruising, perhaps a trip up to Leland’s historic Fishtown? Easy. The boat will keep running for as long as the sun is out and up to four hours past sunset if need be.

And while these boats will never haul waterskiers behind them or rattle the shoreline with noise or wake, they even work for anglers, says their designer, Jim Hotary, founder and chief technology officer for Lilypad Labs, Inc.
“It's a great fishing platform, that's for sure,” Hotary says. “If you're into trolling for fish it really is the right speed range for that.”

The dream boat design comes after two years of research and work by the Lilypad team to develop a quiet, sustainable craft that they and others envision as the future of Michigan’s boating industry.

Sustainable boating 

The Lilypad boat’s unique design and popular appeal earned its manufacturers a Fresh Coast Challenge grant this summer. 

A first-ever state economic development program to support Michigan’s Fresh Coast Corridor this year awarded $506,000 in total grant funding to begin establishing a network of shore-side charging facilities for clean-fueled marine vessels and electric passenger vehicles operating on the Great Lakes.

Hotary’s start-up, Lilypad Labs, was awarded  $135,000 to “deploy highly 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,” the grant announcement reads. 

 "The Fresh Coast Maritime Challenge … represent(s) a critical investment in our water recreation infrastructure that will help to attract visitors, create jobs and preserve the natural beauty of our lakes and waterways for generations to come,”  Gov. Gretchen Whitmer says of the awards. 

Hotary says the boats’ environmental impact is as important to their design as comfort and ease of operation.

“We're really committed to sustainability,” Hotary says.

In addition to making its own power from the sun, the passenger-area floors are made out of black locust,  a local invasive tree species that the Department of Natural Resources is taking down, and milled by a partner in Ann Arbor. “Black Locust is a fantastic marine lumber,” Hotary says.

The batteries that store solar power on the boat are end-of-life electric vehicle batteries.

"We're actually buying used battery cells from electric vehicles and repurposing them,” Hotary says, which gives them a second life.

Likewise,  aluminum is used in the boat hulls, instead of the more common fiberglass.  “The only thing you can do with Fiberglas is landfill it, which is becoming a huge problem now that Fiberglas boats have been around for more than 50  years,” he says. “We're really, really committed to sustainability.”

In fact, Hotary says he is confident the Lilypad crafts are “the most sustainable production power boat in existence.”

Take one for a ride?

Brett Campbell, owner of Aussie Watersports in Traverse City, has handled the logistics of renting the two solar boats from Fountain Point Resort in Lake Leelanau.  

The boats rent for $150 for two hours and can be booked online with 24 hours notice. He said if the weather permits he expects to continue rentals through early fall.

Unlike the larger gasoline-powered pontoon boats Campbell rents out, there’s no additional cost for fuel with the solar boats.

And Campbell echoes Hotary about their ease of operation.

“There's nothing intimidating about them,” Campbell says. "There’s nothing to plug or unplug and at the end of the cruise. They can just pull up to the dock and  tie it up.”
What’s next?

“We started placing these boats with rental operators because essentially these are hand-built products at this point,” Hotary says. “ But once we get the economies of scale to where it needs to be, selling these is the goal, at the price of an entry-level pontoon boat.

“We're a Michigan company, we're committed to using Michigan suppliers and Michigan technologies and source everything as locally as we can,” he adds.

The electric boats coming to the market are currently all very expensive. A Lilypad is really something that everybody can participate in,” Hotary says. “That's something that's important for us.”

More boats are in production, he says, but it may still be a year or two before people can buy their own Lilypad solar-powered boat. 

“Our goal is to allow as many people as possible to use them and to replace traditional polluting boats as soon as possible,” Hotary says. “So we know we’ve got to get the price where it needs to be in order for people to want to try it.”

Rosemary Parker has worked as a writer and editor for more than 40 years.
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