For the modern traveler, there are few modes of transportation as charming, extravagant, and polluting as a yacht. On the larger, super end—over 100 feet long—yachts can guzzle around 530 gallons of marine diesel in just one hour of traveling at 35 knots. That’s equivalent to six tons of carbon dioxide emissions per hour.
So monstrous are the vessels’ environmental footprints that in 2016 the U.S. enacted a law requiring that newly built boats longer than 78 feet with a gross tonnage of 550 must slash their sulphur and nitrogen oxide emissions by nearly 80 percent. While other countries have yet to follow suit, there are signs that the yachting industry is taking matters into its own hands. Increasingly, shipyards are incorporating eco-friendly innovations, a response to consumer demand.
“We see more and more clients becoming aware of the environment,” says Merijn de Waard, publisher of The SuperYacht Times, a trade publication based in Amsterdam. “I’m 100 percent convinced that boats are getting better and greener.”
So how green can a yacht be?
A large luxury yacht is never really going to be an eco-holiday,” says Mark Robinson, founder of Yacht Carbon Offset, a British firm that assists yacht owners in CO2 offsetting. “But there are ways in which you can improve the environmental performance of a vessel.”
Efforts are multifaceted, from building with sustainable or recycled materials to using electric engines. There are even golf balls that dissolve into fish food.
Federico Rossi, chief operating officer of Rossinavi, an Italian shipyard and leading superyacht maker, says that two of its most popular innovations for greening yachts are hybrid propulsion systems and fuel-efficient hull designs. With better-built hulls, fuel consumption can drop by up to 20 percent, he says, noting that they also generate smaller waves, which have less impact on coastlines. His firm is also making sustainable advancements in treating ballast water to avoid contamination when it is released into the sea.
Hybrid propulsion systems are also making a splash. A recently announced superyacht from Porsche features two diesel engines alongside two electric ones. Kjell Inge Røkke, a Norwegian billionaire who is building the world’s largest yacht (at approximately 600 feet), will make that Goliath diesel-electric. Aviva, the custom yacht of British billionaire Joe Lewis, runs on such a system. Because they are all hybrids, charging stations are unneeded.
Aleksandra Łapko, a professor at Poland’s Maritime University of Szczecin who specializes in transport engineering, describes electric engines as “undoubtedly more ecological than traditional ones,” though she notes that fuel, often coal-derived, is still consumed during charging times. “It would certainly be exaggerated to say that the electric propulsion of a vessel is zero-emission,” she says.
There are exceptions, however. The Solarwave, a $2.2 million-and-up yacht launched in June 2016 by a Swiss firm of the same name, can be powered entirely by solar panels on its roof—the first yacht of its kind. Demand has been higher than expected, says CEO Michael Köhler. Ten have already been sold, in the U.S., Europe, and China. Solarwave had to build a second production line.
Despite the growing clamor for eco-friendly yachting, such innovations are still largely on the fringe. “A lot of these yachts are one-off products which need a lot of research and development,” De Waard says. “It makes it a lot more expensive.” The Solarwave, for instance, is a custom order.
Robinson notes, though, that such expenses can pay for themselves. “It might cost you marginally more in capital investment at the outset,” he says, “but you get that back in lower running costs.”
Still, De Waard says, “to be 100 percent eco-friendly, you need a sailing boat.”