Is 'hybrid' just a cool word?
Is hybrid propulsion the future or just a stepping stone on the journey to becoming emission free?
When asked about hybrid technology and hydrogen fuel cells, Tesla CEO Elon Musk said, “They are mind-bogglingly stupid.” However, in the superyacht industry, there seems to be a growing interest in hybrid propulsion. By the end of the year, 35 superyachts over 30m in length will have been launched with hybrid propulsion in the last 10 years, with data from The Superyacht Agency forecasting those numbers to increase.
I don’t think it would be wildly inappropriate for a stakeholder to suggest that hybrid is an unnecessary step to take on the journey towards zero emissions. In fact, it is not just a perception shared in the automobile industry; many superyacht industry leaders have now expressed a vision to bypass hybrid in a bid to become all-out electric.
One question that needs to be addressed is; what actually is hybrid and why do we talk about it in such general terms? There are so many variations that have differing levels of efficiency and impact: diesel-electric, diesel mechanical with a battery reserve, hydrogen fuel cell, bio-fuel combustion and electric, solar-plus fuel cell, battery storage charged by feathered props on sailing vessels. All of these different components are lumped together so marketers can use that snazzy word, ‘hybrid’.
I feel it has become a victim of doublespeak – too often I find the media pairing the word together with over-glorifying superlatives such as ‘ultra-futuristic’ or ‘ground-breaking’, when the reality is not nearly as exciting. It really does just seem like a way to keep up with the times and show that some form of sustainable effort is being made.
In a recent non-financial statement to stakeholders and shareholders, Sanlorenzo commented, “The practical experience gained through the creation of the two hybrid system prototypes revealed significant impacts in terms of weight, cost, safety and use of on-board space, making the solution economically and practically unattractive in relation to the actual lowering of environmental impacts.”
When you consider the speed at which technology is advancing, and compare to the lengthy process of boat building, you can’t help but wonder if Sanlorenzo is onto something that others are missing. How long is it going to be before the hybrid trend begins to fall, causing superyacht owners to have to pay for the installation of the next sustainable engineering trend?
The only real way to compare and forecast the trend in hybrid technology is by looking at the automobile industry. According to a report by IDTechEx, plug-in hybrids are hailed to ‘offer the worst of both worlds’ due to a small battery combined with a smaller-than-usual fuel tank. In the car world, fully-electric vehicles are rapidly consuming the market share which once belonged to the plug-in hybrid EV producers such as Volkswagen, BMW and Mercedes. But, at the moment, it seems unlikely that the superyacht industry will see an established brand or well-funded start up enter the market trailblazing a fully-electric propulsion solution any time in the near future.
The words ‘sustainability’ and ‘superyacht’ are not words that are normally associated with each other for a number of reasons. At the very least, I can see how promoting hybrid is a step in a different direction, away from the enormous diesel-guzzling engines that don’t exactly shine the most flattering of lights on the overall image of the industry.
However, I am sure that there are plenty of expert opinions on the matter who could trump my more cynical views. What does give me a greater source of optimism is seeing the amount of attention and discussion that is going into how we can make propulsion more sustainable. Albeit, it is still amusing to watch these discussions tip toe around the elephant in the room: wind-assisted propulsion.
Before I engage in any discussions myself, I always hear my old man in the back of my head with his familiar phrase, “Never trust an engineer with a tan or an electrician with no eyebrows.” And so, on that note, I pose the question to the decisionmakers of the superyacht community; what is your perspective on hybrid propulsion?
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