NIAGARA FALLS, N.Y. — With the sun streaming into the Niagara Gorge, visitors lined up in socially distanced groups waiting to shuffle onto the Maid of the Mist, the boats that have ferried tourists to the base of Niagara Falls for the past 174 years.
Whether they knew it or not, these passengers were experiencing a new era of maritime transportation: boats powered by electricity.
Earlier this month, the Maid of the Mist launched two electric catamarans into the gorge, the first of their kind in North America. The hulking double-deckers run on dual banks of lithium-ion batteries. All the power used to charge the batteries is supplied by the nearby Robert Moses Niagara Power Plant, one of the most productive hydroelectric facilities in the United States, making the boats a zero-emission operation.
Maid of the Mist is at the forefront of what observers say is an emerging trend in maritime operations. On the other side of the country, Washington is in the process of electrifying its ferry fleet — the largest in the United States — with the goal of cutting diesel fuel consumption in half by 2040.
Michelle Padgett was among the first to tour the Niagara Gorge in one of the sleek new electric boats. She had driven from Kentucky with her three children to take in the northeastern foliage, stopping in Connecticut before crossing New York to see the famous falls. Being from Kentucky, where so many natural resources have been sacrificed to coal production, she said she was delighted by the company’s all-electric boats.
“We need to start using resources we have available and quit just destroying our earth,” Padgett said.
For Maid of the Mist President Chris Glynn, the decision to electrify the fleet was easy. When the company began looking into replacing its two aging diesel vessels in 2018, a consultant proposed electric boats. He and others at the company jumped at the opportunity, he said.
“As soon as we heard that, we knew that was something we were most interested in doing and wanted to pursue it,” Glynn said, adding that it was important to him to protect the waters of the Niagara River and be part of a larger movement to move into a green future. “It’s a great sustainability statement. Many people appreciate that.” America’s long-standing conflict between industry and nature is threaded through the history of Niagara Falls.
In the state park, visitors experience the raw energy of the river and the 167-foot waterfalls, the noisy rush of the rapids a constant reminder. That natural power was an enormous draw for industrialists, who used the raging waters to drive machinery — first mills and then turbines.
The city of Niagara Falls played a prominent role in the war of the currents, the famous race between General Electric and Westinghouse to prove which electric power transmission technology was superior. Later came the power project, a herculean feat that saw tens of thousands of workers dig massive underground tunnels to divert water from the upper river and under the city to reservoirs that hold more than 22 billion gallons of water about four miles away in Lewiston, N.Y.
But that industry brought with it widespread pollution. The Love Canal neighborhood became the country’s first Superfund site in the 1970s and a national symbol of the consequences of the wanton disposal of industrial waste. There are six other Superfund sites in Niagara County, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
The task of getting the electric boats ready for service was not easy. The ships underwent a rigorous approval process with the U.S. Coast Guard. The company had hoped to deploy them in the spring, but the regulatory review delayed the launch until the last month of the season. The boats are typically pulled out for the winter in early November.
Justin Miller, chief of the inspections division with the U.S. Coast Guard, said one of the biggest challenges was ensuring the battery system could operate safely. The division worked closely with ABB, the engineering firm hired to plan and oversee construction to make sure that the massive batteries could power the boats without failing or catching fire, a rare hazard with lithium-ion batteries.
Each vessel is powered by two 3,300-pound battery banks. The boats are recharged between runs at the dock by plugging two high-voltage lines into a charging station for seven minutes. The charge is more than enough to power the boats for their 20-minute tours of the gorge.
The boats, named for Glynn’s father, James V. Glynn, and inventor Nikola Tesla, who worked with Westinghouse in Niagara Falls during the war of the currents, also use four cone-shaped propellers, with one placed near the bow, allowing the boat to move in any direction and even spin in place, a maneuver the captains use to give passengers a panoramic view of the gorge. The steering wheel has been replaced with two joysticks akin to those found on an arcade game. Dual monitors in the wheelhouse offer a detailed look at the status of each battery bank and can toggle through cameras placed throughout the boat.
Ed Schwarz, the vice president of sales at ABB, said the electric boats are no more dangerous than the diesel boats they are replacing, which are both more than 20 years old.
“We don’t feel that there’s an additional risk that comes with energy storage, especially if it’s designed properly and the safeguards are in place, over internal combustion engines and the problems that come with that,” he said.
The new boats offer an uninterrupted connection to the falls without the loud hum from the old diesel engines or a view obstructed by fume-spewing exhaust stacks.
“The ride is smooth,” Glynn said. “There’s virtually no noise other than nature itself, the sound of the falls. It’s almost like a sailing experience.”
Compared with traditional diesel-powered vessels, there was a significant premium for the electric boats, which cost $12.5 million apiece, said Glynn, although he added that he didn’t know how much a diesel version would have cost. He said he will not recoup the additional investment for many years, despite no longer having to buy 50,000 gallons of diesel fuel each year.
“There’s a cost savings for fuel,” Glynn said. “If you just simply did the comparison it doesn’t get you to the premium for electric.”
Niagara tour boats — regardless of how they’re powered — are about 25 percent more expensive than those built in traditional shipyards because all materials must be lowered about 150 feet from the road by crane to the docking facility at the base of the gorge.
Glynn declined to say whether the new boats might give his company a competitive advantage over his rival on the Canadian side of the river, Hornblower Cruises, which runs diesel boats.
The decision to go all-electric is part of a broader trend. In tourism, and many industries, companies have felt pressure to offer products that are safer for the environment and to employ practices that use less and cleaner energy in response to that consumer demand.
The trend toward a greening tourism industry is being driven by younger consumers and business owners who view mitigating climate change as a top priority, said Michelle Rutty, a professor at the University of Waterloo’s Interdisciplinary Centre on Climate Change in Ontario, Canada. A CNN national poll in early October found 61 percent of registered voters between the ages of 18 and 34 and 56 percent of voters overall said climate change is “extremely or very important” in their vote.
“I think that younger generations continue to demand this,” Rutty said. “But also, they’re opening up their own businesses and their own enterprises.”
While experts agree electric tourism boats are helpful, they don’t address the bigger issue when it comes to tourism and the environment — namely, air travel. Airplanes have a large carbon footprint, with tourism accounting for as much as 8 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to studies.
Bas Amelung, a researcher at Wageningen University and Research in the Netherlands who has studied the environmental impact of the tourism industry, said that carbon emissions related to tourism have been growing in recent years and only paused this year because of lockdowns and travel restrictions linked to the pandemic.
“Tourism is really heading for a major crisis, I guess, because emissions are going up and up,” Amelung said.
Maid of the Mist’s two boats carry about 1.6 million passengers in a typical year, the company said. The electrification of its fleet may seem relatively minor, but greening practices add up, Rutty said.
“We need those small, incremental changes,” she said. “If you think about how many hundreds of millions of people are traveling annually, if every individual makes a small change, it will have a global impact.”
Some cruise and freight companies, which make up a larger portion of marine travel than tour boats, are interested in switching to electric, Schwarz of ABB said. The main obstacle is energy storage — developing batteries with a sufficient charge to power a cargo ship without creating too much weight.
“This is a great technology to kind of make a big shift from being one of the larger polluters in transportation to being one of the least polluting,” he said.
After the tour, wet and wearing a wide smile, Martha Robbins seemed stunned by what she had just experienced. The court reporter from Raleigh, N.C., talked about the thunderous power she felt emanating from the falls.
“I had no idea what to expect on this,” Robbins said. “That was fabulous. That was unbelievable.”
She had traveled with her partner, Freddie Hinton, and five of their eight children to fulfill a lifelong dream on the week of her 51st birthday. She and Hinton, together for 19 years, again exchanged rings and vows as the boat neared the base of the Horseshoe Falls, the largest section of the waterfalls.
It made perfect sense to use the natural energy of the falls to power the boats in a way that protects the beauty of the river and the gorge, she said.
“That was so powerful,” Robbins said. “You feel like you’re in the wrath of God. Why not harness that and use it?”