Hybrid hopes ride on long-distance boats

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ReGen Nautic USA sees passagemakers and other cruising vessels as candidates for its electric power systems

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Pierre Caouette, president and CEO of ReGen Nautic USA, developed his hybrid electric power systems with sailboats in mind, but for the casual sailor the increased cost was — and still is — hard to justify based on fuel savings alone.

Although regeneration — recharging the battery bank — under sail has appeal, the real advantages of hybrid electric power are for high-performance sailors and long-distance passagemakers, who reap the benefits of maintaining a steady speed using auxiliary power and efficient DC generation, says Caouette, 57, a cruiser and onetime Canadian Olympic team sailor.

ReGen bought and converted an old Grand Banks 42 to full electric power and increased its range by 400 percent, demonstrating the advantage of hybrid power for this type of boat. However, many trawler owners don’t log the running hours needed to justify investing in hybrid power, he says.

So what is Caouette’s focus today, 3-1/2 years after starting his Fort Lauderdale-based company? “Large vessels,” says Caouette, who has two other successful startups on his résumé, one in computer operating systems, the other in biotechnology. He says his most promising niche is commercial vessels — charter yachts, fishing boats, tour boats, boats that log thousands of hours a year on the water and especially those that generate heavy house loads to run lights, appliances, electronics and amenities. “Commercial operators can realize big fuel savings,” he says.

Motoryachts with big house loads that rack up a lot of running hours can realize 20 to 30 percent savings with hybrid electric power, Caouette says. However, most boaters — small-boat owners, especially — do not see enough savings to justify a hybrid installation at today’s fuel prices, but as the auto industry knows, there is a fair amount of demand from people who like technology and people who want to run their boats cleaner, quieter and more efficiently, he says.

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Caouette has found a surprising application for ReGen’s technology (www.regennautic.com). The Norwegian boatbuilder Goldfish Boats AS is offering an all-electric 23-foot center console powered by a UQM motor with ReGen’s high-voltage switching box and energy-management computer. Caouette says he sees applications for this boat at water-ski schools.

Reaching 47 knots in 10 seconds, the Goldfish 23 e-Fusion (www.goldfish boat.com) is equipped with a 145-kW permanent magnet brushless electric motor that is the rough equivalent of a 200-hp internal combustion outboard, Caouette says. He says the electric motor operates at almost 95 percent efficiency, compared with less than 45 percent for a gasoline outboard, and can pull a skier for as long as an hour on a 20-minute charge on the equivalent of half a gallon of gasoline. “That was a success for us,” he says. “There could be a huge demand for that application. That market, we just didn’t expect at all.”

Still, most systems ReGen sells today are for boats from 60 to 100 feet, Caouette says, and its installations are going in yachts 60 to 150 feet at several overseas yards.

Caouette and Lisa McKerracher, his wife and business partner, had been looking into hybrid electric power for three years before they set out on a two-year circumnavigation in the 2005 Blue Water Rally on their 47-foot catamaran, BioTrek. They had hoped to fit the sailboat with hybrid power, but after evaluating several systems, they found their complexity daunting, particularly the switching to achieve optimum efficiency under different running conditions, and the hardware insufficiently robust.

They circumnavigated without hybrid power, but when they returned they decided to create ReGen to develop an improved system. ReGen has borrowed most of its hardware from the electric bus industry, where the systems are proven, durable and efficient, and has invested much of its $1 million in R&D in safety systems and software for the module that controls the switching to different parts of the system.

ReGen’s hybrid systems include a lithium battery bank, an energy management computer, a high-voltage safety/distribution unit and electric motors. Caouette says its most efficient system is a serial and parallel hybrid (Hybrid Squared) in which the patent-pending software restricts the operation of the internal combustion engines to their most efficient point of operation, whether for propulsion or electrical generation. The rest of the time, it operates on battery power.

A prerequisite for success in this market, says Caouette, is “a lot of R&D and testing, testing, testing.”

This article originally appeared in the February 2012 issue.

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