Earlier this month, top brass from the marine industry, including both international and regional players, met in Halifax to discuss the future of electrification and the role Atlantic Canada could play.

The verdict, according to moderator Brent Dancey of national research non-profit Oceans North, was clear: with Norway and the United Kingdom having emerged as early frontrunners in the marine electrification race, Atlantic Canada still has a good chance of becoming an internationally notable hub. But the industry badly needs a more structured framework within which to collaborate, both within Canada and internationally.

The technologies needed to start electrifying marine transportation — a sector that has historically grappled with hard-to-abate carbon emissions — are reaching the tipping point of commercial viability, said Dancey in an interview. Adria Jover of the U.S.-based International Electric Marine Association, which specializes in collaborating on international research projects, added that modernized standards around powertrains and charging systems are needed to help scale innovations faster.

“All the pieces are in place,” said Dancey. “The energy, and excitement and momentum’s there. I think we’re at that point where it’s got to be scaled up to really have an impact. It’s really taking projects off the paper and moving them into the harbour.

“There’s an opportunity for governments. The next thing we need to figure out is how to share risk and the value across some of these first projects. … You have Sue (Molloy)’s boat, you have different boats, but we’re ready for 10 boats on the water. That’s the next step.”

Sue Molloy is the CEO of Glas Ocean Electric, a developer of electric propulsion systems that can be retrofitted to existing boats. Her company, which last fall raised US$2 million or C$2.75 million of equity funding, is among several marine electrification startups generating buzz in the bluetech community.

Another is Halifax’s BlueGrid, which earlier this month revealed that a joint project with several partners has produced what is likely the first working vessel-to-grid energy transfer system in the world, eventually making it possible for boat owners to sell power back to local utilities.

And a third is Lunenburg, N.S.-based Veer Group, which said in December it had signed a €50 million, or about C$73.2 million letter of intent with a European backer to finance its first two hydrogen- and wind-powered container ships.

Dancey and Jover warned the standards and regulations that govern the maritime sector have largely not kept pace with technological advancement, either domestically or elsewhere in the world. For example, Jover said the classing societies that develop and enforce technical standards for ships usually require vessels to be certified by an inspector, but those inspectors were trained on combustion engines.

“The decisions need to be made, for safety purposes, for integration, on how to add these components,” said Jover. “Companies, regardless of their region or size, they need to decide what are the rules by which they want to play each other. This doesn’t come from the political spectrum or civil societies, this comes from the scientists, the engineers, the mathematicians, the physicists.”

The Oceans North meeting included delegates from startups, shipyards, government and Indigenous communities. According to Dancey, many of the attendees, particularly in government, had been working independently and were surprised to discover some of the advancements made by others. 

Nor is the leadership Dancey and Jover hope for from government limited to regulatory oversight. If the industry is to begin delivering larger scale projects, it will need an influx of cash to pay for them. Of the 10 largest equity funding rounds on the East Coast last year, only two were oceans companies, according to Entrevestor data. Only one, Glas Ocean, is working on decarbonization.

“This is a really risky, risky time,” Dancey said. “This transition can’t happen unless there’s profitable companies that are able to hire workers … to really scale. 

“When I talk to folks across the sector, it’s the same comment: ‘We need help to do this. There’s lots of funding at the university, there’s lots of new technology, but there’s a whole bunch of technologies right now that are ready to be unleashed.’”