STOWE, Vt. – Snowmobiles are part of the wintry soundtrack in this part of Vermont, at their worst crushing the stillness of the forest like motorcycles on skis. But the motorized sleds bouncing down a wooded mountain trail in February were silent, save for the whir of metal sleds on snow.
The machines, made by a Canadian start-up company, taiga, were powered by batteries — the first electric snowmobiles to be widely sold — and symbols of how modes of transportation are migrating to zero-emission propulsion. Taiga also offers battery powered watercraft, another form of recreation where the gasoline version is considered a scourge in some circles.
While electric cars are getting the most attention, electric lawnmowers, boats, bicycles, scooters and all-terrain vehicles are on the rise. In some categories, battery-powered machines are gaining market share faster than electric cars are conquering the automotive world. Startups lure investors by claiming to be the Teslas of the boating, cycling or lawn and garden industries.
The environmental benefits are potentially significant. Unlike cars and trucks, outboard motors or lawn mowers usually do not have a catalytic converter to reduce harmful emissions. They make a lot of noise 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 the California Air Resources Board†
California passed legislation to ban gasoline-powered mowers from 2024, and all new gasoline-powered vehicles by 2035. But sales of electric alternatives are growing even without government pressure.
One of the first customers for Taiga snowmobiles was New Mexico’s Taos Ski Valley, which markets itself as an environmentally conscious ski resort. The Taos ski patrol and trail maintenance workers will use the electric snowmobiles for tasks such as transporting injured skiers or maintaining snow machines, said David Norden, the chief executive of Taos Ski Valley. When skiing resumes this year, Taos also plans to deploy an electric snow removal machine made by Kässbohrer Geländefahrzeug, a German company.
Even if the electric snowmobiles, which start at $17,500, are more expensive than gasoline counterparts, which can be purchased for less than $10,000, the resort will save money on fuel and maintenance, Mr Norden said.
“If you do the cost-benefit analysis, you’re probably close to break even,” he said. “These are not only decisions for the environment, but also good decisions for our bottom line.”
But sometimes people switch to electric power because it offers practical benefits.
Buyers of electric lawn and garden equipment, surveyed by the Freedonia Group, a research firm, cited noise reduction, low maintenance costs and not having to keep cans of petrol in the garage as their top priorities. Often, electric leaf blowers or grass trimmers are cheaper and lighter than petrol versions.
The lawn and garden industry has gone electric faster than the car industry. According to Freedonia, electric mowers, leaf blowers and other equipment accounted for 17 percent of the United States market in 2020. That is more than three times the share of electric vehicles in the US car market.
A critical year for electric vehicles
While the general car market is stagnating, the popularity of battery-powered cars is rising worldwide.
Many people are hesitant to buy an electric car because they worry that the power will run out of power far from a charger. Range anxiety is not a problem in the backyard.
“You don’t worry about taking a road trip in a lawnmower,” says Jennifer Mapes-Christ, manager of commercial and consumer product research at Freedonia.
But electrifying boats and other vehicles often poses technological challenges. Electric power works for smaller craft or boats that don’t travel far. It is the only option on the hundreds of lakes where conventional outboard motors have been banned due to noise or pollution.
However, because water creates so much drag, large powerboats require an amount of continuous power greater than what currently available batteries can provide. (Sailboats, of course, have run on wind energy for thousands of years.)
Batteries are “part of the answer to the future, but not necessarily the full answer,” said David Foulkes, the chief executive of Brunswick, which makes Mercury marine engines.
Still, Mercury has unveiled a prototype electric outboard motor and is keeping a close eye on the shift to electrification.
“We intend to be a leader in this space,” said Mr Foulkes, who is a battery-powered Porsche† “Even though the market is small at the moment, we want to be there and see what the market is doing.”
Some engineers are taking advantage of the shift to electrification to rethink design. An offshore racing series known as E1which plans to host events in Miami and other cities next year, will use battery-powered boats equipped with hydrofoils that lift the hulls above the water, significantly reducing drag.
“We need to change the paradigm,” said Rodi Basso, E1’s CEO. “This is what Tesla has done.”
Just as Tesla has rocked the auto industry, startups are challenging companies that have long dominated their markets. Flux Marine is one of several companies trying to adapt electric power for personal watercraft. With the help of $15 million in venture capital, it plans to sell electric outboard motors made at a factory in Bristol, RI this summer.
Ben Sorkin, the chief executive of Flux Marine, who was a summer intern at Tesla, admitted that battery power wasn’t practical for large offshore fishing boats and the like. “Given what is available now, electric propulsion is a niche market,” said Mr Sorkin.
But he said the market would expand as batteries improved and became practical for bigger and bigger engines. Flux Marine’s largest engine is rated at 70 horsepower and the number will continue to rise, Mr. Sorkin said.
“Every five years or so, the sweet spot shifts,” he said.
Major manufacturers of boats, snowmobiles and mowers are slow to go electric. John Deere, the largest manufacturer of self-propelled mowers, will 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 auto industry could serve as a warning to the established companies. Just as slow-moving car companies initially ceded ground to Tesla and are trying to catch up, new companies like Taiga are exploiting wide-open markets.
Taiga CEO Samuel Bruneau said electrifying snowmobiles was challenging because the batteries and motors had to handle extreme temperatures and bumpy terrain.
“No one entered that space because it required new technology,” he said. “That’s the opportunity we saw.”
The competition is coming. BRP, a Quebec-based company that makes Ski-Doo snowmobiles, as well as all-terrain vehicles and powerboats, has said it will offer electric versions of all of its products by 2026. The company also plans to enter the motorcycle market with a line of electric two-wheelers in 2024.
“There is a trend driven by the car,” said José Boisjoli, the CEO of BRP, the largest snowmobile manufacturer. “We can’t get around it.”
But he said the transition would be slower in recreation. For starters, the markets are much smaller, making it more difficult to achieve the cost savings that come with mass production. Fewer than 135,000 snowmobiles were sold worldwide in 2021 compared to about 60 million cars†
And snowmobiles and motorboats don’t receive the government subsidies or tax breaks that can save thousands of dollars off the price of an electric car. Charging is also a problem in the forest. Taiga has installed charging stations next to a popular network of snowmobile trails in Quebec, and is planning more.
But snowmobiles venturing deep into the wilderness will still prefer gasoline, said Mr. Boisjoli. “The internal combustion engine will be present in snowmobiles for a long time,” he said.
Dominic Jacangelo, executive director of the New York State Snowmobile Association, agreed that long-haul snowmobiles, which can easily travel more than 100 miles a day, would be skeptical.
Still, Mr. Jacangelo said he’d like to try a Taiga. “In terms of performance, you have a sled that can keep up with everything else on the market,” he said.
Because electric snowmobiles are quieter, they can help reduce friction between snowmobiles and people who view the machines as an affront to nature. That would free up more ground for snowmobiles.
“Certainly,” said Mr. Jacangelo, “an electric sled will change many environmentalists’ view of snowmobiling.”