Maine trains electric boat maintenance mechanics

Electric boats will soon be docking along Maine’s rocky coast.

A new training program is designed to help boat mechanics prepare for maintenance, with the goal of accelerating the adoption of these cleaner-running vessels.

The Island Institute, a nonprofit organization focused on supporting the needs of Maine’s coastal and island communities, has partnered with Maine Electric Boat, the Maine Community College System, and the Mid-Coast School of Technology to create a Developing a three-part training course it hopes will create stable, sustainable career opportunities for Maine residents while increasing the confidence of potential electric boat buyers.

“The move to electric motors makes sense and will be really valuable – and it will be here before we know it. It’s really important that education is already in place,” said Robert Deetjen, director of program partner Mid-Coast School of Technology, a technical school for high school students that offers adult education and college courses.

Maine’s waterfront is an important part of its economy and culture. With 3,400 miles of shoreline — more than California despite covering about a fifth of the land area — the state is home to a more than $1 billion annual lobster industry, a robust commercial fishing business, and a growing aquaculture sector. And the largely fossil-fuel boats that support all of these activities are mostly inefficient and carbon-intensive — on average, an hour’s boat ride is equivalent to an 800-mile drive, said Matt Tarpey, co-founder of Maine Electric Boat Co., based in the coastal city Biddeford.

As Maine pursues its goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050, cleaner ships on the water will be essential.

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“Maine is a unique place where there are a lot of vehicles that don’t have wheels,” Tarpey said. “And they’re on the water, dealing damage.”

At the same time, electric boats offer their owners benefits that go beyond the environment. Without regular refueling, electric boats have lower operating costs. In addition, they generally require significantly less maintenance than petrol and diesel engines. Still, barriers to adoption remain, including higher upfront costs and concerns of not having a support network at this early stage if something goes wrong with the new technology.

“If we’re going to expand into electric boats, we need someone to work on those engines,” said Joseph L’Africain, director of instructional design and assessment at the Maine Community College System.

The Island Institute saw an intersection between this dynamic and its goal of fostering human resource development in the clean energy industry. At the end of 2021, the organization turned to educational and business partners. After a year of collaboration, the team launched the first part of an expected three-course training sequence in late December 2022.

The first course is a free, 90-minute online video training course that provides an overview of electric boats, their likely growth in Maine, and career opportunities in the field. At the end of the course, participants can take a quiz to earn a Kennebec Valley Community College digital badge, a way to showcase a range of knowledge competencies. In the month since the release of the first tier of training, more than 100 people have signed up and 25 have earned their digital badges.

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Two more courses are expected to start this spring and summer.

“The second and third courses will be much smaller and much more geared toward people who have prior knowledge or are genuinely interested in the area,” said Yvonne Thomas, senior community development officer at the Island Institute.

The second course, taught primarily online with some face-to-face components, will explore the science of electricity and electric propulsion and will ground students in the theory of how electric boats work. The third level includes intensive hands-on training that enables students to disassemble and service electric outboard motors. Both of these tiers come with a fee, but Thomas reckons he can subsidize most participants with grants and other programs, so there’s little to no cost in the end.

It’s unlikely students will find full-time jobs repairing and maintaining electric boats at this point, Thomas admitted. But the program will equip prospective and existing boat technicians with the skills to remain relevant — and employable — as the market inevitably evolves, she said.

As soon as the courses are set up, they will be offered by interested adult education centers. Kennebec Valley Community College is already on board and others have expressed interest. The concept may even extend beyond Maine: The Island Institute has even heard from an Alaskan organization interested in adopting the program.

“It should be fairly portable and fairly replicable,” Thomas said. “It was really exciting to see the response.”