Traverse City News and Events

Electrifying The Bay: Inside The State-Backed Grant Program That Will Make Northern Michigan An Electric Boating Hub

By Craig Manning | April 24, 2023

An electric boat charging “corridor” in the waters of northern Michigan. Research and development around game-changing maritime technologies, happening right here in Traverse City. A local cluster of manufacturers dedicated to modernizing the boating industry and reducing its reliance on fossil fuels. These are a few possibilities that Traverse Connect President and CEO Warren Call cites as possible outcomes of a new state-backed grant program that's focusing all its early efforts on the northern Michigan area. If all goes well, Call says, that program could help define the next chapter of economic development and prosperity for Traverse City businesses and the people who live and work here.

The Fresh Coast Maritime Challenge, announced earlier this month by Governor Gretchen Whitmer, is a competitive grant program that invites companies to apply for state funding to help advance the decarbonization and electrification of watercraft and marinas throughout the state. A press release from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC) describes the effort as “a first-of-its-kind program in the United States that puts Michigan at the forefront of future-proofing sustainable maritime transportation including recreational boating activities, marina innovation, as well as commercial activities on the Great Lakes.”

The Challenge is an effort that involves some big-name departments – including the MEDC’s Office of Future Mobility and Electrification (OFME), the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE), the Office of Outdoor Recreation Industry, the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT), and the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) – but it also has local ties. Traverse Connect is a key partner, and will work in tandem with those state entities to review grant applications and decide how state funding should be allocated.

Beyond just Traverse Connect’s seat on the judging panel, though, the Fresh Coast Maritime Challenge is kicking off with a laser focus on the northern part of the state. According to Camille Hoisington, Traverse Connect’s director of ecosystem development, “projects need to be based within the Michigan Prosperity Region 2” in order to be eligible for Challenge funding. “So, that's our 10-county region,” she explains. “What that means is that the applicants themselves don’t need to be from this region, but they do need to be putting their projects in this region.” Grant sizes will be up to $150,000 each.

In Call’s view, this grant program is one of the first big boosts for an effort already brewing locally to establish Traverse City as a national (or even global) leader in the so-called “blue economy.”

“Under that blue economy heading, that includes what we're doing with the Freshwater Research Center, as well as the lakebed mapping stuff that we're doing with NMC,” Call tells The Ticker. Call and his team have been pushing to build a “fresh coast corridor,” or a network of state-of-the-art electric boat charging stations along the northern Michigan coastline. Such an asset would make the area’s waters navigable for people with electric boats – and could open other doors.

Elk Rapids Marina has has a rapid charger [for electric boats],” Call says. “Northport has a rapid charger. Traverse City is working on getting their contract established for a rapid charger. So, in effect, we can be the first place in North America with a charging corridor. Obviously, that's great for anyone that has an electric boat, and it’s great for any kind of tourism or hospitality. But really, our key interest here...is because we want to go after the research, development, production, manufacturing, etc. of this growing industry. That's really what's in it for us. We're looking to plant a flag and put our region on the map as a place for these companies to locate.”

Call spoke about the potential for a local electric marine economic epicenter at a meeting of the Traverse City Downtown Development Authority (DDA) last year, but the Fresh Coast Maritime Challenge has given the idea new momentum. The grant program also exists, in large part, because of Traverse Connect and its early brainstorming sessions about the value the electric boating industry could someday bring.

“We built this idea out [locally], and then we started talking to the MEDC probably about a year ago about how to get this some traction,” Call says. “So, over the past year, we’ve been talking with them, and the plan eventually came together in this grant program.”

Call says the idea grew from an acknowledgement that Michigan already has grant initiatives to encourage the adoption of road-based electric vehicles. Why not have “a parallel program about the adoption of these technologies for marine applications”? Those conversations led the MEDC to devise a program centered around electric boats, and Traverse Connect’s involvement led to northern Michigan being selected as the pilot location.

“Eventually, the state will want to extend [the grant program] to all of Michigan,” Call says. “But right now, it is specifically our region.”

While grants must be focused around sustainable marine applications, Hoisington says potential uses for funding are rather expansive. Eligible projects could include the installation of electric charging stations at marinas, projects aimed at transitioning maritime vessels or fleets to alternative fuel sources, the establishment of full-fledged electric boat businesses in the region, or education and workforce development initiatives to increase the local talent pool in this industry niche.

Call says he’s already had conversations with boat manufacturers – ranging from startups and early-stage companies to major “well-established” brands – about the grant program. “Some would be interested in locating a small aspect of a bigger operation here,” he says. “Some of the early-stage companies might even locate their production or assembly facilities here.”

One example is Hercules Marine, an early-stage company that makes a state-of-the-art electric drive system described by the company as “revolutionary in its approach” of bringing “more horsepower, more efficiency, [and] more control” to the electric boating experience. Another early-stage company looking at the grant program is Lilypad Labs, which makes entirely solar-powered boats (pictured). Among the bigger companies looking at Traverse City as an option is  Mercury Marine, known for electric boating propulsion systems that offer quick acceleration, quiet performance, and minimal maintenance. Beyond boat manufacturers, Call says Michigan Tech “is looking at this grant program and may submit an application to conduct a research project related to marine electrification” in the Grand Traverse area.

Applications for the grant program are due May 12.

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