Solar-powered pontoon boat cruises Charlton Lake

Ian Graham’s solar electric pontoon boat on Charlton Lake.

Willisville cottager modifies craft with green technology

WILLISVILLE – Living off grid is freedom and it could be easier to achieve than you think. So says Ian Graham, an audio engineer from Kitchener with a camp on Charlton Lake in Willisville. His home is powered by the sun, as is his cabin and his customized pontoon boat, which also has an electric motor. He pulls the boat and trailer with his Tesla 3. A stop at the charging station at the Georgian Bay Travel Centre costs him $18. That can’t be easily dismissed, with the average price per litre for gasoline in Canada up 30 cents since the beginning of 2021. 

He can trace his interest in renewable energy back to the 1990s, when his parents purchased the cabin beside a waterfall on Charlton Lake. At the time, it would have cost $75,000 to have hydro installed so they used propane for the stove, fridge and lights. Mr. Graham’s father researched alternatives. “He came across a company that sold a propeller that, when hooked on the back of a sailboat, would charge 12V batteries,” he said. Mr. Graham Sr. purchased a propeller and set it up to power four 12V lead acid batteries, generating hydro power from the waterfall. “He had a satellite TV, a satellite phone and lights (they didn’t have LED back then). They got along fine. It was my first real realization that you could do this.”

His current lifestyle has come through a series of incremental changes. After his father passed away, Mr. Graham started to look into solar power for the cabin. He put up a couple small panels to supplement the waterfall hydro. Last summer he installed four 390 watt bifacial solar panels on a new deck extension. “There’s more power than I know what to do with on those four panels,” he said. The system uses four six-volt lead acid batteries wired as 24 volts that is shut down over the winter. Other cabins located around the lake are outfitted with solar as well. “One guy has a 60-inch television.”

Solar is a good option for year-round power, even in winter, Mr. Graham said. “February is one of the best times for solar. You get the reflection, especially with bifacial panels, and it’s colder. Panels like cold. They’re not as efficient in this heat; you don’t get as much daylight time during winter months but the system is more efficient overall. It’s amazing how much power comes out of that.”

He pointed to the February 2021 winter storm in Texas when power outages essentially shut down the state. “There were people on Facebook who had solar panels connected to a Tesla Powerwall. They didn’t have to worry. The grid went down and they didn’t care. Last time I was here there was a big thunderstorm. It took out the hydro for Willisville but didn’t affect me at all.”

At home in Kitchener he has two 10 kilowatt systems, installed 10 years ago. It cost $80,000 to install and he gets paid to feed back into the grid but “now you can do net metering and a 10-kilowatt system installed is around $20,000, so that’s how much the cost has dropped.” All energy has a consequence, said Mr. Graham, but “while it will take a year to a year-and-a-half of energy to produce a solar panel, that panel will last 25 years.”

An August 2021 study, Impacts of Behind-the-Meter Solar in Ontario, conducted by Power Advisory LLC for the Canadian Renewable Energy Association (CanREA), concluded that installation of more rooftop solar panels would help Ontario to meet future electricity demand. “Doubling Ontario’s solar generation capacity would help reduce costs for the whole energy system by up to $250 million per year by 2030,” reported CanREA. The cost of solar electricity has fallen by about 90 percent since 2010, making residential rooftop solar panels more affordable, but “regulatory red tape” continues to limit solar expansion in the province, the organization said.

Mr. Graham has chosen to use renewables in all areas of his life. He drove a van on waste vegetable oil for eight years. More recently, he drove an electric Chevrolet Volt for three years before purchasing the Tesla 3 three years ago (when there was still an Ontario rebate program for electric vehicles) and “absolutely loves it.” He is a member of the Waterloo Electric Vehicle Association. “We have about 500 members and not one of them would go back to gas.”

When you add up the savings in gas, oil changes and other maintenance with an electric vehicle (EV), it more than pays for itself, he said. “I can get 500 kilometres on a full charge. Charging at home, it will cost seven or eight dollars for 500 kilometres. I’ll stop at Parry Sound to charge and have some lunch and it’s about $18 for 500 kilometres.” 

“There are so many myths about EVs, like they don’t work in the winter,” he said. “That’s baloney. I just read an article about a lady in Thunder Bay with a Model 3.”

He acknowledged there is a carbon footprint with EVs but pointed out the bigger one from gas. “I tell people that their gas first has to be mined. It has to be refined, which takes a lot of electricity and water. The cobalt used in EVs is also needed for desulphuring gas. Gas has to be transported, using energy, before you put it in your engine which is only 15 to 20 percent efficient, and then it only burns once.”

A new study by the International Council on Clean Transportation supports this. The study looked at the entire life cycle of vehicles from sourcing the battery materials to production, then compiled driving data in different markets to get an average life cycle emission from the use of vehicles. Results showed “that battery electric vehicles have by far the lowest life cycle greenhouse gas emissions,” with “emissions over the lifetime of average medium size battery electric vehicles registered today already lower than comparable gasoline cars by 60 to 68 percent in the United States.” 

That’s not even considering the health costs of gas transportation, Mr. Graham noted. “Emissions from gasoline engines lead to higher rates of asthma, emphysema, circulatory disease and cancer. In my mom’s case, she passed away about a year and a half ago from dementia, which is now being linked to air pollution.” When fuel doesn’t burn efficiently, very fine metal particulates get into the atmosphere. We breathe those in and our nasal passages provide access to the brain, he said.

“We keep giving oil and gas companies billions of dollars a year and what do they contribute to our health care? They’re the ones polluting us. What are they contributing to the environment? They need to be held accountable.”

Mr. Graham’s latest project is a pontoon boat he has converted to solar/electric. He bought the boat second-hand in January and started building the battery boxes in April with help from a friend. They custom built the canopy using aluminum rails purchased after they were found in someone’s back yard. A friend custom designed the connector plates and corner brackets in a CAD program. A shop in St. Mary’s did the fabrication. The brackets for the solar panels were 3D printed and it all came together.

The solar canopy consists of 1400W of bifacial solar panels. They get power from the top and the reflection from both the water and the boat’s white seats. There are four Tesla batteries in two custom built boxes, made plug-and-play using Anderson connectors. There is a solar charge controller and a battery management system that dictates how the batteries are (properly) charged. The battery system sits within a mounted deck box and takes up less space than the original motor compartment. The gasoline motor was swapped for a 20 HP Elco electric motor to complete the 48V system. “This is a simple system,” Mr. Graham said. “It only goes 10 kilometres an hour but for a floating couch, it’s good.”

The batteries are always charging. “When I wake up in the morning, I’ve got power here. When I go out on the water, I’ve still got power. I can go fishing or drift and after spending an hour or two out here, I’ve got 15 or 20 percent of my power back.”

“The only propane I use is for the stove and barbecue and hot water for the shower,” he said. “I have a solar air heater for my recording studio. The only thing I’m owned by is having to pay property taxes. With solar, you’re independent of a lot of hydro bills and gas and prices going up. All those things add up and make a big difference.”

“The big thing I try to get across to people is that this is independence,” Mr. Graham said.