A solar-powered, electric charter boat breaks the mold in Key West

Key West boat captain Billy Litmer sits at the helm of his solar-powered electric charter boat on a recent day in February 2019.
Key West boat captain Billy Litmer sits at the helm of his solar-powered electric charter boat on a recent day in February 2019. FLKeysNews.com

This Key West boat captain is doing more than just talk about saving the environment. He is banking his future on leading by example with a solar-powered electric boat.

“We’ve got to, it’s got to be the future,” said Billy Litmer, 35, as he navigates his catamaran across Key West harbor one recent evening, talking about fighting back against climate change and marine pollution.

“Anything we can do to mitigate our impact, we have to do our best,” he said.

Three months ago, Litmer’s Honest Eco tours launched what he says is one of the first near coastal electric T boats going through the certification process for charter by the United States Coast Guard. The solar panels aren’t hooked up yet, but that’s the next step, Litmer said. For now, he plugs the boat in every night.

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The “SQUID” is one of the first solar-powered electric boats awaiting certification by the U.S. Coast Guard as a charter boat. Honest Eco

Electric boats have been around for 120 years but it’s been a difficult market to break into, according to the Atlantic Yacht Basin repair company in Chesapeake, Virginia.

“The boating industry is not one that is usually aligned with the term eco-friendly,” reads a 2015 blog by the company. “Pollution, invasive species and littering are all issues we’ve come to accept as being part of the industry. There have been many attempts at popularizing electric boats over the years, but none have been particularly successful.”

These solar panels built into the “SQUID” charter boat will soon power the all-electric boat. Gwen Filosa FLKeysNews.com

The “SQUID,” built from scratch in Santa Cruz, California, is powered by solar panels and electricity and weighs in at about 8,000 pounds — less than two Ford F150 pickup trucks.

Litmer started Honest Eco Tours five years ago, offering dolphin watching, kayaking and snorkeling trips. No fishing.

“No killing on these boats,” Litmer said.

Two and a half years ago, he started the SQUID project.

“We worked with a naval architect and engineer to do all the hard stuff. Then we moved across country and built it in Santa Cruz, California. “It was super hard, just sanding constantly.”

He credits his inspiration to naïveté. “Thinking it would be fun,” he said, laughing.

When designing the boat, Litmer used the latest technology including lithium ion batteries engineered by BMW, Sunflare solar panels that are thin and lightweight, ultra-lightweight carbon fiber along with the highest tier diesel generator to act as a range extender when the dolphins are tough to find. The electric motor, which can be plugged into shore, was engineered by Torqeedo.

“Diesel generators with electric motors have been around,” Litmer said. “But the lithium ion batteries is the real thing. This is the true hybrid.”

The boat also has narrow hulls that Litmer says allow it to cut through the water without producing a wake. The design of the boat limits any interference with the daily behavior of dolphins.

The solar-powered electric boat can hold up to 20 people. Gwen Filosa FLKeysNews.com

As Litmer docked the 36-foot catamaran at the Key West Historic Seaport the other day, he smiles at how quiet his boat is as it comes ashore.

“I scare the parasailing guys sometimes,” said Litmer, a Kentucky native with a biology degree who is married with two small children.

Fourteen years ago, he took a Greyhound bus to Key West and found a room to rent, after camping for a few days. A week earlier he had been here on vacation.

“I came down on a road trip and went out snorkeling,” he said. “It was my first time snorkeling and I just thought it was amazing. On my way back in, I asked the captain how he got that job. I was just blown away. He said, ‘The first thing you have to do is live down here.’”

He loves the people, the wildlife and Key West’s acceptance of different walks of life. “I was totally blown away and it was really good to meet people with different backgrounds,” he said.

Now, he’s a part of the boating community, trying to spread the word about environmentally friendly practices.

“I want my company to have policies and take long-term actions, just ingrain it into us,” he said. “We switched to stainless steel water bottles four years ago to try to get away from plastics. We’re constantly trying to make little improvements every chance we get.”

Gwen Filosa covers Key West and the Lower Florida Keys for FLKeysNews.com and the Miami Herald and lives in Key West. She was part of the staff at the New Orleans Times-Picayune that in 2005 won two Pulitzer Prizes for coverage of Hurricane Katrina. She graduated from Indiana University.