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First hybrid-electric motor runs entire length of Grand Canyon

The first alternative motor boat river trip propelled by a hybrid-electric motor traveled the entire distance of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon Aptil 4-10.  Photos/Grand Canyon River Outfitters Association

The first alternative motor boat river trip propelled by a hybrid-electric motor traveled the entire distance of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon Aptil 4-10. Photos/Grand Canyon River Outfitters Association

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. - For the first time in history, a hybrid-electric outboard motor has completed an entire Grand Canyon river trip.

For nearly eighty years commercial river outfitters have been providing the general public with exceptional multi-day backcountry and whitewater rafting experiences in one of the most remote and pristine locations in the world - the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon National Park (GCNP).  

Today 16 professional outfitters provide this service to approximately 20,000 of the nearly five million park visitors each year.  These companies are the official authorized concessioners and partners of the National Park Service (NPS) and provide these services to the public.  The Grand Canyon River Outfitters Association (GCROA) is a non-profit trade association headquartered in Flagstaff, Arizona, which represents the entire group of Grand Canyon outfitters.  

On April 4, the Grand Canyon River Outfitters launched on the first successful river trip operated propelled completely by a hybrid-electric motor through the Grand Canyon. Steve Hatch ran the boat as the trip leader and was joined by four other outfitter representatives as well as two GCNP officials, Park Superintendent Dave Uberuaga and Chief River District Ranger Brian Bloom.  

The trip ran seven days from Lee's Ferry to Pearce Ferry and was completed successfully on April 10.

As the primary provider of public access to the extremely fragile ecosystem and river corridor environment within the Grand Canyon, the commercial river outfitters have been continuously leading the way by exercising the most environmentally friendly practices and sustainable technologies on their multi-day river trips in Grand Canyon.  

Earlier this month due to more recent threats, the advocacy group America Rivers declared the 277-mile stretch of the Colorado River that wind through the Grand Canyon as the most endangered river in the nation.  

"There is no more important time than now to do our part to protect this special place in every way we can," said GCNP Superintendent Dave Uberuaga.  "We all know of the constant threats to the Grand Canyon and we all share in this ultimate responsibility to preserve it unimpaired for future generations and the Grand Canyon river outfitters are truly taking steps and doing things that and actually make a difference to protect the resource as well as greatly improve the visitor's experience here and now.  It is a great partnership with the Park."

In 2008 the river outfitters committed unanimously to partner with the NPS and pursue the development and implementation of a non-fossil fuel alternative motorboat propulsion system suitable for commercial-river running operations within Grand Canyon, known as the 'alternative motorboat program.'  

Since the creation of this program, river outfitters have voluntarily invested more than $500,000 and have been working with the engineering departments of several universities and a few private sector companies in research and development to create a technology that does not actually exist - for an application found nowhere else in the country. Outfitters initially pursued a few competitive ideas but ultimately have settled on the hybrid-electric concept because it showed the most potential with the largest immediate benefits.  

"We felt we should accomplish as much as we can now and not have to wait for future technology to catch up," said John Dillon executive director of GCROA..

"We cannot just buy an electric motor and enough batteries off the shelf that could sustain a weeklong river trip with no ability to recharge.  We made enormous strides with the university programs but ultimately we have been waiting for battery technology to evolve and catch up to our needs. Until there is better technology that is affordable and can be readily obtained, the hybrid-electric model is our choice for now."

The hybrid-electric concept is the use of an all-electric 30-kilowatt outboard motor that is powered by two large packs of lithium-ion batteries.  

The motor is the newest 4-stroke 30-hp Evinrude outboard that most outfitters use today that has had the gas motor removed and a liquid cooled 30-kilowatt electric motor and a special computer control panel installed in its place.  

The lower unit and propeller are the same as a conventional gas motor.  Both battery packs weigh approximately 300 pounds each and require periodic charging throughout the trip.  This is made possible by the most advanced, quietest, eco-friendly generator available on the market today.  The Honda 7000eu generator produces 4500 watts and is still quieter than the standard 4-stroke outboard motors in use today and uses 60 percent less fuel than is used for a regular outboard motor trip.  The converted electric motor, batteries, chargers and generator are all sealed and waterproof to the best extent possible, and the electric motor is virtually silent.

Almost sixteen years ago the industry voluntarily transitioned from louder, dirtier, but also more affordable 2-stroke conventional outboard motors to an entire fleet of conventional 30-hp four-stroke outboard motors which produce much lower emissions and are nearly 40 percent quieter than the previous 2-stroke motors.  

That transition voluntarily replaced nearly 300 motors at a cost of $1.5 million to the outfitters.

"Most people don't understand or appreciate the commitment and investment that has already been made by the outfitters to improve the resource and visitor experience," Dillon said. "It is significant and the latest accomplishments with the hybrid-electric motor are truly remarkable towards our long-term goals."

It was not a flawless trip, however, and there are still many improvements that must be made.  It will likely take years for better battery storage technology to evolve to where a multi-day river trip could be done without recharging and for the overall unit costs of such a motor to be financially feasible to operate commercially.  

The current 4-stroke gas motors are approximately $5000 each.  The outfitters have invested more than $75,000 in just this one prototype hybrid-electric motor and battery configuration.  But the outfitters are committed to this project through 2017 and will re-evaluate the next steps.  

"This is so exciting. I am so impressed with the dedication the outfitters continue to show towards the long-term goals of this program. We have all had our doubts, and there remains to be many things improved before something like this could be a viable alternative to the existing outboard motors in use today, but it is big steps in the right direction," Uberuaga said.  "I think we'll look back on this someday as a huge stepping stone in the journey."

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