Tesla and SpaceX materials engineering chief Dr Charles Kuehmann is not just about electric cars and reusable space rockets – he has also electrified his yacht.
Of course, sailing is of itself a very lyrical form of zero emissions transport, but the use of diesel engines to get yachts in and out of marinas and navigate other tight places does negates the feel-good eco-friendly feeling.
While there are electrified yacht options out there, Kuehmann was after a particular boat – the Elan GT5 – which he naturally chose for the high-quality materials with which it is made.
Being all about Tesla, Kuehmann decided he would prefer it be, where possible, electric, and in an interview with Torqueedo, which has supplied a hybrid electric propulsion with maximum 100kW power output for his Elan GT5 yacht, has explained how it was done.
“I work for Tesla; I know the benefits of electric power,” he told Torqueedo.
“I did a lot of research about the state of the technology and high-power electric drives available in the marine market.”
Working in such a prestigious position for the world’s pre-eminent electric car and space companies, Kuehmann is used to hearing people say “it can’t be done”.
“There are a lot of people who post in blogs and online forums who say it can’t be done, and it isn’t practical, but there are always naysayers – I’m used to that,” he was quoted as saying.
“I was convinced that it was not only possible but that converting to hybrid-electric could bring a lot of advantages. I wanted to prove it.”
Being a high-level engineer, Kuehmann naturally did his research – and it led him to the Deep Blue Hybrid.
“I chose the 25 kW Deep Blue saildrive system, and since I was already in contact with Torqeedo, I knew precisely which components would be involved in a Deep Blue Hybrid installation, their dimensions and how much they weighed. A sailboat is all about weight and balance – I needed to keep the weight low and as close to the centreline as possible,” he was quoted as saying.
However, Elan did not have the capacity to tale on the project, which led Kuehmann to a San Diego conversion outfit that could handle the high-voltage project.
It did require however, some modifications in order to fit in the hybrid drive’s diesel genset.
“I went with the hybrid system with the diesel generator. Due to its weight, the genset had to be in the centreline. I was hoping to fit both the genset and the motor in the engine compartment but it was a little too tight. We were able to take a little space from under the cabin floor to install the motor. Now, the heaviest components are all installed on the centreline, super-compact, close together and easily accessible.” Kuehmann was quoted as saying.
“It’s a beautiful installation but it required major surgery on the hull to close up the existing saildrive and cut a new hole for the Deep Blue. The only visible compromise, though, is in the aft cabin. It was a double berth and I converted it to a single berth so I could have really good access to the genset, the electronics the power converters and the electrical panel.”
According to Kuehmann, the electric hybrid drive makes the motoring portion of the sailing experience not just better from a sustainability perspective, but also a less arduous exercise. The boat can be easily recharged while in dock, and the silence of the electric drive is magic.
“Knowing it’s more sustainable is great but what I notice is that it’s convenient. I show up at the dock and my “tank” is full – I don’t have to think about when I’ll go to the fuel dock and fill up. It’s taken care of by the system,” he was quoted as saying.
“Now that I’m cruising and doing overnights, I’ve found I have more power available on the boat than I do when I’m plugged in at the dock. I can run the air conditioning and all the electrical appliances on the boat without ever worrying that I’ll run out of power. The generator runs a half-hour or an hour a day, and I can schedule it.”
Does Kuehmann feel happy with the end of result?
“I do. Electric and hybrid propulsion for sailboats makes sense. It can be done. It works very well and it makes spending time on the boat much more enjoyable. And, it’s the right thing to do,” Kuehmann said.
Bridie Schmidt is lead reporter for The Driven, sister site of Renew Economy. She specialises in writing about new technology and has been writing about electric vehicles since 2018. She has a keen interest in the role that zero emissions transport has to play in sustainability. She has participated in podcasts such as Download This Show with Marc Fennell and Shirtloads of Science with Karl Kruszelnicki and is co-organiser of the Northern Rivers Electric Vehicle Forum.