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A Lilypad for humans: solar powered boat features clean energy, sustainable design

The West Michigan beach town of Saugatuck is known for its historic riverfront nestled among critical dune habitat at the mouth of the Kalamazoo River.  Saugatuck and its neighbor Douglas straddle the river and for more than a century people have found creative ways to navigate the waterway.

One of the most popular is a hand-cranked chain ferry. Believed to be the last of its kind in the country, the ferry “Diane” has operated on and off since 1857 and is arguably the most ecofriendly way to move a couple dozen beachgoers across the river to Saugatuck’s famed Oval Beach on the shores of Lake Michigan. 

Lilypad -- a solar-powered boat – at a demonstration event in Saugatuck, Michigan, on Sept. 23, 2022.

The Lilypad -- a solar-powered boat – at a demonstration event in Saugatuck, Mich., on Sept. 23.


The Diane may be getting some competition for the title greenest watercraft in Michigan from a new challenger called the Lilypad being demonstrated a few hundred feet down the river at the city’s old boat house.

Lilypad is a solar-powered, low-speed sharable boat that can be rented out for leisure cruises. The technology leverages both clean energy and sustainable design.  The Lilypad is almost entirely made from recycled materials including old Toyota Prius batteries that have been repurposed by a plant in nearby Holland, Michigan.  With exception of the boat’s solar panels, virtually all the craft’s major parts are recycled and Michigan-sourced.

Lilypad’s development was supported by a $60,000 investment from the C3 Clean Tech Accelerator and Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE).  The investment was based on Lilypad’s carbon free approach to shareable recreational boating.  This included supporting the development and manufacturing of Lilypad to achieve a significant economic multiplier effect within Michigan’s world-class manufacturing community.

Lilypad was one of four projects funded by EGLE and the Office of Future Mobility and Electrification (OFME) to address climate, energy, and mobility challenges in the Great Lakes region through innovative maritime solutions.

"The Great Lakes State is uniquely suited to tap into the abundant water-based resources available in our backyard to research sustainable solutions that will support Michigan's maritime industry and preserve our greatest natural resource for generations to come," said Governor Whitmer last year when announcing the grants. "These new projects will allow us to support this critical workforce while continuing to create a more innovative and environmentally-friendly future for our state."

Lilypad began real-world customer testing in Saugatuck in October of 2021 at Retro Boat Rentals in Saugatuck, current operators of the old boat house.  Soon to be featured in a Pure Michigan tourism commercial Retro Boat Rentals already operates a fleet of restored vintage boats repowered with electric motors.  Testing continued in the summer of 2022 with two Lilypad boats now in operation.

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