STOWE, Vt. — Snowmobiles are part of the winter soundtrack in this part of Vermont, breaking the stillness of the forest at their worst like motorcycles on skis. But the motorized sleds bouncing along a wooded mountain trail in February were silent except for the whistle of metal skids on the snow.
The machines, made by a Canadian start-up company, Taiga, were battery-powered, the first widely-sold electric snowmobiles, and symbolic of how transportation of all kinds is migrating to emission-free propulsion. Taiga also offers battery-powered jet skis, another form of recreation where the gasoline version is considered a scourge in some circles.
While electric cars get most of the attention, electric lawnmowers, boats, bicycles, scooters, and ATVs are proliferating. In some categories, battery-powered machines are gaining market share faster than the electric cars that are taking the automotive world by storm. Startups are courting 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 lawnmowers do not usually have catalytic converters to reduce harmful emissions. They are noisy and often use lower quality fuel. A gasoline-powered lawn mower creates as much pollution in an hour as a 300-mile car trip, according to the California Air Resources Board.
California has passed legislation to ban gas-powered lawnmowers by 2024 and all new gas-powered vehicles by 2035. But sales of electric alternatives are growing even without a government push.
One of the first customers for Taiga snowmobiles was Taos Ski Valley in New Mexico, which markets itself as an environmentally conscious ski resort. Taos ski patrol and trail maintenance workers will use the electric snowmobiles for tasks like transporting injured skiers or servicing snowmaking equipment, said David Norden, executive director of Taos Ski Valley. When skiing resumes this year, Taos also plans to implement an electric snow thrower made by Kässbohrer Geländefahrzeug, a German company.
Even if electric snowmobiles, which start at $17,500, are more expensive than gasoline ones, which can be had for less than $10,000, the resort will save money on fuel and maintenance, Norden said.
“If you do the cost-benefit analysis, you’re probably close to breakeven,” he said. “These are not just decisions for the environment, but also good decisions for our bottom line.”
But sometimes people are converting to electric power because it offers practical advantages.
Buyers of power lawn and garden equipment surveyed by the Freedonia Group, a research firm, cited reduced noise, low maintenance costs and no need to store gas cans in the garage as their top priorities. Electric leaf blowers or string trimmers are often cheaper and lighter than gas versions.
The lawn and garden industry has gone electric faster than the automotive industry. In 2020, electric lawnmowers, leaf blowers and other equipment accounted for 17 percent of the market in the United States, according to Freedonia. That’s more than three times the share of electric vehicles in the US car market.
A critical year for electric vehicles
As the overall automotive market stagnates, the popularity of battery-powered cars is skyrocketing around the world.
Many people are hesitant to buy an electric car because they worry about running out of power far from a charger. Range anxiety is not a concern in the backyard.
“You’re not worried about taking a road trip on a lawnmower,” said Jennifer Mapes-Christ, research manager for commercial and consumer products at Freedonia.
But electrifying ships and other vehicles often presents technological challenges. Electric power works for smaller vessels or boats that don’t travel very far. It is the only option in the hundreds of lakes where conventional outboard motors are prohibited due to noise or pollution.
However, because water creates so much resistance, high-powered boats require amounts of continuous power beyond what currently available batteries can provide. (Sailboats, of course, have operated on wind power for thousands of years.)
Batteries are “part of the answer to the future, but not necessarily the whole answer,” said David Foulkes, chief executive of Brunswick, which makes Mercury marine engines.
Still, Mercury has unveiled a prototype electric outboard and is carefully watching the move to electrification.
“We intend to be a leader in this space,” said Mr. Foulkes, who drives a battery-powered Porsche. “Even if the market is small right now, we want to be there and see what the market does.”
Some engineers are taking advantage of the switch to electrification to rethink design. An offshore racing series known as E1, which plans to start hosting events in Miami and other cities next year, will use battery-powered boats equipped with hydrofoils that raise hulls above the water, greatly reducing drag. .
“We have to change the paradigm,” said Rodi Basso, CEO of E1. “This is what Tesla has done.”
Just as Tesla has revolutionized the auto industry, startups are challenging companies that have long dominated their markets. Flux Marine is one of several companies trying to adapt electrical power for boats. With the help of $15 million in venture capital, it plans to start selling electric outboard motors made at a plant in Bristol, Rhode Island, this summer.
Ben Sorkin, CEO of Flux Marine, who was a summer intern at Tesla, admitted that battery power was impractical for large offshore fishing boats and the like. “Given what’s available right now, electric propulsion is a niche market,” Sorkin said.
But he said the market would expand as batteries improved and became practical for larger and larger engines. Flux Marine’s largest engine is rated at 70 horsepower and the numbers will continue to rise, Sorkin said.
“Every five years or so, the sweet spot changes,” he said.
Major manufacturers of boats, snowmobiles, and lawnmowers have been slow to go electric. John Deere, the largest maker of self-propelled mowers, does 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 established companies. Just as slow-moving car companies initially ceded territory to Tesla and are trying to catch up, new companies like Taiga are exploiting wide-open markets.
Samuel Bruneau, CEO of Taiga, said electrifying snowmobiles was a challenge because the batteries and motors had to cope with extreme temperatures and rough terrain.
“Nobody would go into that space, because it would require 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 ATVs and powerboats, has said it will offer electric versions of all 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 car-driven trend,” said José Boisjoli, chief executive of BRP, which is the largest snowmobile maker. “We can’t ignore it.”
But he said the transition would happen more slowly in the recreation. For one, markets are much smaller, making it difficult to achieve the cost savings that mass production brings. Fewer than 135,000 snowmobiles were sold globally in 2021, compared to roughly 60 million cars.
And snowmobiles and powerboats don’t get the government subsidies and tax breaks that can knock thousands of dollars off the price of an electric car. Loading is also a problem in the forest. Taiga has set up charging stations along a popular network of snowmobile trails in Quebec and plans more.
But snowmobilers heading deeper into the wild will still prefer gasoline, Boisjoli said. “The combustion engine will be around in snowmobiles for a long time,” he said.
Dominic Jacangelo, executive director of the New York State Snowmobile Association, agreed that long-distance snowmobiles, which can easily travel more than 100 miles a day, would be skeptical.
Still, Mr. Jacangelo said he was looking forward to trying a Taiga. “In terms of performance, you have a sled that will keep up with anything else on the market,” he said.
Because electric snowmobiles are quieter, they could help reduce friction between snowmobile drivers and people who view the machines as an affront to nature. That would open up more ground for snowmobiles.
“Certainly,” said Mr. Jacangelo, “an electric sled is going to change the way many environmentalists view snowmobiling.”