Float your carbon free boat: Solar-powered service aims to revolutionize recreational boating

As fall progresses and the cold Midwest winter approaches, boating might not be top-of-mind. But here’s something to look forward to when the weather is favorable: a new “carbon-free shared recreational boating service” in Saugatuck, Michigan.

Last year, the founders launched startup Lilypad after toying around with the concept for years. Users rent six-person, low-speed watercraft that operate on solar power, with lithium-ion phosphate batteries for reserve power. The idea is to give more people easy, affordable access to Michigan’s waterways while reducing traditional watersports’ carbon impact.

“Recreational boating is not something that’s particularly sustainable — it’s something that gets one to two miles per gallon,” said Dana Lowell, Lilypad co-founder and CEO. “We’re proving that solar can be used in mobility applications and that carbon-free mobility is possible.”

Lilypad began beta testing with one boat last year. They added a second boat this year and officially launched the service in September. 

Circular design

The founders aimed to create a business that prioritized sustainability and circularity, and therefore they structured Lilypad to be compliant with B Corporation certification principles, Lowell said. They factor in “not only sustainability in terms of profitability, but also environmental performance, our employees’ well-being, and the communities that we work in,” he said, and those elements are weighed “equally rather than focusing on just profit maximization.”

Lilypad builds its boats with materials that are renewable, upcycled, or recyclable. For example, the boat hull is aluminum instead of the typical fiberglass, the batteries are upcycled, and the wood flooring is salvaged.

The toggle control functions like a joystick and lets users easily operate the boat. Operator assistance technologies aid navigation and boat docking, making it a low-barrier service that even first-time boaters easily can use. When the boat is not in use, the solar panels fit over the seating area to create a protective cover.

Solar power provides enough energy density to operate the watercraft because they travel at low speeds — up to 5 or 6 mph. Low speeds also prevent the boats from creating a wake, which reduces environmental damage to the waterway.

On being Midwest-based

Although the East and West Coasts have benefits in terms of access to venture capital, “the Third Coast has benefits,” and ultimately will prove to be an advantageous location for this business, Lowell said. 

“We have all this freshwater — we have 400 marinas — and there’s a good, established, talented technical base here, particularly when you’re talking about batteries and EV technology,” Lowell said. 

“This may become the leadership point of the world for that technology with the amount of money that’s getting invested here now.”

What’s next 

The Lilypad team will do more fundraising to build more boats. Ideally, they’d like to produce roughly one per week over the winter and launch them next summer. They’ll also make some upgrades and refinements to the two existing boats’ designs and operations.

“And I think the technology platforms that we’re plugged into will continue to develop and continue to make for more enjoyable user experiences on the water,” Lowell said. “The market looks bright.”

Photos courtesy of Lilypad Labs.