electrical propulsion system design for small ships



Coming from the background of professional shipbuilding and system design, it has been an interesting lesson for me to work with smaller segment. You may wonder what is this ”small”? For me, the small stands for the ships and boats where there is no direct technical or operational reason to consider electrical solution. Needs are non-technical. Rather than only a small size, it also includes cases with small motivation, such as loosing high speed due to weight of the batteries. Size-wise boats and ships less than 10-15 meters start to have lack of displacement and space to carry heavy components of electrical system. It becomes an area of solutions, where traditional mechanical engine is more compact and efficient enough to challenge the electrical concept as we know it.

Technically I like this small segment a lot. The challenges are the same as with ship size segment, but there is less of everything: less space, less money, less competence in shipyards, less technical competence in operating crews, less professionals in suppliers and less rules.

Commercially I hate this small segment a lot. The challenges are the same as with ship size segment, but there is more of everything: more competition, more shipyards, more expectations, more customer profiles, more opinions, more factors behind the decision making and more publicity. With professional background, this market really sometimes feels nonsense guided.

When I combine these technical and commercial inputs, I start to have need to bang my head onto the wall. When just the basics are missing, how on earth this smaller segment will ever be educated to the very basics of the electrical concept design?

How to advise the whole market that they have not even started yet a serious electrical propulsion development for smaller ships. Practically what we have now in the market, are copies of the mechanical concept solutions and they sort of miss the whole point of benefitting the electrical solution. That has pushed me to design my own solution, just because there are no alternatives available.

What can be reported as a market status, is a huge gap between professional ship design market and boat design market. In the ship design, the utilized energy is a meaningful, as the consumption costs enough. This has guided electrical concept development for decades. Results are there but they are not yet transferred to boat building. Average Sunday boater will never spend so much money to fuel. He/she is not even considering the electrical concept from the savings perspective. Would it be better to just forget then the whole segment?

I refuse to do that and there is important reason behind. I do not count emissions from leisure boating to be globally very important, but combined with land-based cargo it starts to be important. We need to push boat’s electrical concept closer to everybody and accept some of limitations until someone comes with better ideas to go around the challenges.

We cannot let the complete global boat building industry to be ignored from the fact that they are needed.  They have a vital role in the system development for parallel power sources, as in boats the power need is higher than in cars. They benefit from the system development for mixed propulsion use and therefore a very important source of innovation to the cost driven land-based solutions. Such innovations are transferrable to long-range electrical trucks or working machines. And then the environmental footprint becomes meaningful. From the ship building industry, we really need to bring our experience and make it available for wider development and innovation.


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Managing the electrical system project in a ship

Heikki Bergman

I am expert on supporting conceptual decisions and pre-design in electrical ship concepts and modernizations. I have worked in power electronics since 1994, completely in marine since 1998. I have long and practical international experience.

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