Ferries Update – The Future is Green

When it comes to the next generation of passenger-only ferries, the future is green.

West Coast ship makers are in the process of building vessels that are not only powerful enough to transport people and vehicles, but are constructed with advanced sustainability goals in mind, the kind of impact that can mean cleaner air in the long run.

Here’s a look at what’s being built:

A rendering of Sea Change, a 70-foot-long, 84-passenger e-ferry that launched in mid-August. Photo courtesy of All American Marine.

Building Sea Change

The name Sea Change is apropos for a ferry poised to advance the potential commercialization of fuel-cell powered marine vessels globally.

Bellingham, Washington-based All American Marine has been at work on that very vessel, building the Sea Change with North American investment firm SWITCH Maritime and Zero Emissions Industries [ZEI] (formerly Golden Gate Zero) to bring about the nation’s first fleet of zero-emission vessels powered by hydrogen fuel cells.

Constructed with help from a $3 million California Air Resources Board grant, the 70-foot-long 84-passenger e-ferry can go as fast as 22 knots and will feature a powertrain designed by Golden Gate Zero Emission Marine and 360kW hydrogen fuel cells from Cummins.

Hydrogen from storage tanks supply the fuel cells, generating the energy needed to power the electric motors and turn the ferry’s propellers, according to Cummins. The ferry only produces water and electricity as a byproduct, making it completely emissions free and a desirable solution for decarbonization, the company added.

Besides being zero emissions, the fuel cells are silent and scalable and can be installed at nearly anywhere on the vessel. Sea Change’s fuel cells are in a room at the back of the main cabin, while the hydrogen storage tanks are up at the top deck, Cummins said.

“Hydrogen-fuel cell technology will prove to be a robust alternative to conventional powertrain technologies,” AAM President and COO Ron Wille predicted.

Sea Change, which launched in mid-August, was scheduled to undergo a number of weeks of sea trials and systems tests before delivery to San Francisco.

m/v Suquamish
The m/v Suquamish, an ‘Olympic-class’ ferry operated by Washington State Ferries. The first hybrid-electric Olympic-class ferry is expected to join the WSF fleet in 2024. Photo courtesy of Washington State Ferries.

Washington State Ferries

Washington State Ferries’ road to making its fleet of ferries more sustainable began more than 10 years ago when the transportation agency looked at technological ways to curb emissions and expenses associated with its vessels.

Matthew von Ruden, director of vessel engineering and maintenance for the Washington State Department of Transportation’s Ferries Division, and Sean Caughlan, a senior marine engineer with Glosten, discussed those plans jointly in a recent opinion piece for Pacific Maritime Magazine.

“WSF elected to convert the fleet to battery-hybrid propulsion after it became clear that the financial, environmental and operational advantages it presented far outshined other solutions,” von Ruden and Caughlan wrote.

Today, WSF is in the process of creating a battery-hybrid powered fleet, with the m/v Wenatchee as its first vessel for conversion, with help from state and federal transportation funds.

WSF decided to first tackle its trio of diesel-electric Jumbo Mark II class ferries, the biggest vessels in its fleet of 21 with a 2,499-passenger and 202-vehicle capacity. The m/v Wenatchee—along with the m/v Tacoma and m/v Puyallup—have been transporting passengers for more than two decades, but they also guzzle the most gas in the fleet.

The ferry, which is headed to the shipyard later this year, already has electric propulsion, thanks to four 4,475 kW motors and four EMD-16-710-G7A generator sets on a 4160V medium voltage bus. Two large battery banks will replace a pair of generator sets in the vessel. With a total capacity of about 5700 kWh per shipset, the Siemens BlueVault ESS batteries will be put in the shaft alley near each propulsion motor room.

The new batteries will be supported with several new auxiliary systems, such as fire suppression, fire and gas detection and a dedicated battery ventilation system. Also being installed are power conditioning equipment such as bidirectional AC/DC converters, transformers, and new medium voltage switchgear for the shore power charging system.

When the retrofitting is done, the ferry will be able to run as a hybrid or as a battery-electric vessel, with backup energy from two generators and batteries in case it can’t get to shore power.

“When completed next year, the vessels will be among the largest battery-hybrid vessels in the United States in terms of power and battery capacity,” von Ruden and Caughlan wrote.

WSF is also working on a charging system to provide shore power to these greener vessels and has been seeking out feedback from vessel crews and support staff to help inform its design.

Once the system is in service with shore power, WSF fleet-related emissions are expected to drop as much as 25%, according to von Ruden and Caughlan.

Partnering with Vigor

Washington State Ferries’ conversions are part of long-term efforts to further green its fleet. The agency’s 2040 Long Range Plan and System Electrification Plan includes 22 plug-in hybrid electric vessels and encompasses the construction of 16 new vessels, the conversion of six ferries, and 17 terminal electrification projects.

WSF is already partnering with Vigor to build as many as five Hybrid-Electric Olympic Class ferries over the next eight years, with the first of the new vessels expected to be in service by 2024, according to Vigor.

“This landmark project supports Washington State’s goal for 2050 to reduce emissions by 57.5% below the emissions level in 2019,” Jay Hebert, vice president of marine fabrication for Vigor, said in June. “Vigor is delighted to partner with ABB in this remarkable work prompted by the commitment of Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, the state Legislature and Washington State Ferries to replace aging ferries with clean technology in alignment with the state’s commitment to environmental stewardship.”

Vigor has brought on ABB Marine & Ports, using its Onboard DC Grid power distribution system and drive technology to the new ferries. The technology offers optimal energy use by allowing to draw power from the main engine, battery or both.

“Moving toward a dramatically reduced-emission future relies on technologies that meet the environmental and cost needs of today—and offer flexibility to integrate future energy sources in the years ahead,” ABB Managing Director Juha Koskela said. “ABB is delighted to support this milestone project demonstrating the way that electric, digital and connected solutions can deliver shipping’s zero-emission future.”

m/v Guemes
The 42-year-old m/v Guemes, a 21-vehicle, 99-passenger, diesel-powered Ferry in Skagit County, Wash. that is being replaced by an all-electric ferry designed by Seattle engineering firm Glosten. Image courtesy of Devin Creviston.

Replacing the M/V Guemes

Since 1979, the m/v Guemes, 21-vehicle, 99-passenger, diesel-powered ferry, has ferried about 200,000 vehicles and 400,000 people annually as an essential link to Guemes Island. But soon, Skagit County is looking to replace it with an all-electric ferry.

Skagit County Public Works reached out to Seattle-based naval architecture firm Glosten in 2017 re: designing a new vessel, which will be a double-ended vehicle and passenger ferry with a three-tiered deckhouse, according to the agency.

Both are seeking applicants who could integrate the electrical systems and automated charging plug into the new ferry design. Proposals from prospective applicants are due in September.

“The new Guemes Island ferry design relies on an all-electric propulsion system, making it one of the first vessels of its kind in the United States,” according to Glosten. “The vessel will see a 50% reduction in operational costs compared to its diesel-propelled predecessor and produce virtually zero emissions during its 5/8-mile crossing.”

m/v Burrard Chinook
The m/v Burrard Chinook was launched in July to ferry passengers across the Burrard Inlet in North Vancouver, British Columbia. Photo via TransLink.

BC Ferries

Further north into Canada, the British Columbia Ferry Commission is considering a BC Ferries proposal to improve its six diesel-electric hybrid Island-class vessels with battery power, thereby making them BC Ferries’ first vessels to be fully electrified.

Through its Island Class Electrification Program, BC Ferries also intends to outfit nine terminals along the ferries’ routes with quick charging capabilities shoreside. The routes stretch from Powell River to Texada Island, Nanaimo to Gabriola Island, Campbell River to Quadra Island, and Port McNeill to Malcolm and Cormorant Islands.

BC Ferries has been operating two Island-class ferries since 2020. Two more are headed from a shipyard in Romania to British Columbia; and two additional ferries are being built and are anticipated to be in service in early 2022.

The proposal calls for the first ferry to be outfitted with battery power by September 2022, with the six vessels and nine terminals to be fully upgraded by October 2024.

The Island-Class Electrification Program is expected to generate 660 jobs, be more cost efficient and bring down BC Ferries’ total annual GHG emissions
by 6%.

BC Ferries, which has been gathering input from the public, will need board and regulatory approvals and funding from the Government of Canada to move forward with the electrification program, said Deborah Marshall, executive director of public affairs for BC Ferries.

BC Ferries garnered approval from its board and is in the process of seeking approval from the BC Ferries Commission.

“In reviewing any application for a major capital expenditure, we also consider the public interest,” said Commissioner Sheldon Stoilen. “This includes ensuring that British Columbians can continue to enjoy safe, affordable and reliable coastal ferry service.”

BC Ferries has the potential to be one of the most environmentally sustainable ferry services in the world, Marshall said.

“The Island-Class Electrification Program is an opportunity for the federal government and BC Ferries to take definitive climate action while creating economic opportunity in British Columbia and Canada,” she remarked, adding that BC Ferries will seek federal funding to accelerate the program to provide shore charging infrastructure sooner and to change the vessels from hybrid-diesel-electric to battery electric operations.

“We believe this program supports the federal government’s Net Zero 2050 and is part of BC Ferries’ commitment to a greener future,” she stated.

Meanwhile, BC Ferries welcomed its latest Island Class ferry in late July.

The new vessel—named Island 3 for now—began its 10,700 nautical mile-journey in May from Damen Shipyards Galati in Romania to Victoria, British Columbia.

“From the exterior details to the engines, the design of the new vessels reduces underwater radiated noise, lowers emissions and improves customer service,” according to BC Ferries, adding that it intends to put the new Island-Class ferry into service next year.

Island 3, along with Island 4 (which was expected to arrive this summer), are planned for use serving the Campbell River–Quadra Island Route beginning in 2022. BC Ferries said it plans to officially name the vessels later this summer.

New SeaBus Sails

In late July, TransLink launched its new SeaBus, the Burrard Chinook, to move passengers across the Burrard Inlet in North Vancouver, British Columbia.

The Government of Canada, the Province of British Columbia and TransLink funded the $32 million endeavor, which included buying and commissioning the new vessel and upgrading the SeaBus terminals.

About 20,000 SeaBus boardings occurred each weekday in 2019. That year, TransLink launched 10-minute peak hour SeaBus sailings, which required all three vessels to be in service without a spare vessel. Currently, it’s delivering 15-minute peak hour SeaBus service.

As part of the 10-Year Mayors’ Vision for Metro Vancouver Transportation, this new vessel enables Coast Mountain Bus Co. to offer 10-minute SeaBus sailings and allows for an older SeaBus to be a spare during peak hours of sailing, according to TransLink.

“Investing in public transit is an essential part of a growing economy,” said Terry Beech, member of Parliament for Burnaby North-Seymour. “The new Burrard Chinook SeaBus will contribute to the reliability and efficiency of Metro Vancouver’s SeaBus system.”

“Canada’s Infrastructure plan invests in thousands of projects, creates good jobs across Canada, and builds cleaner, more inclusive communities,” Beech said.

The vessel was covered in art created by local Indigenous artists Kelly Cannell, Siobhan Joseph, and Angela George from the three local Nations—a first for SeaBus —that pays tribute to Chinook salmon.

“The SeaBus is an iconic part of Metro Vancouver’s transit system, providing a vital service that bridges the gap across the Burrard Inlet and connects the communities of our region,” said TransLink CEO Kevin Quinn. “TransLink proudly worked alongside members of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh Nations to adorn the new Burrard Chinook SeaBus with artwork that honors local Indigenous history
and culture.”