With more than 200 e-ferries planned, Thailand’s ‘Venice of the East’ could be on its way to becoming the electric ferry capital of the world.
A few weeks ago, on the 160th anniversary of the creation of the Thailand Marine Department, its Director General Wittaya Yamuang said “By 2021, there should be up to 30 ferries providing service before it expands to 200 ferries throughout the country in three to four years.”
Electric ferries in Prime Minister’s green network dream
He is speaking only about one initiative – there are two other public and public/private efforts that are preparing to add another 40 – 60 boats to the total. And the two biggest canal boat operators are closely watching to see if electric propulsion makes sense for their combined fleet of 135 vessels.
This all started in 2016 when Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha Promoted the idea of increasing boat transportation to solve some of Bangkok’s notorious traffic (and pollution) woes. It would be part of a seamless urban transportation connectivity linking electric trains, buses and boats.
Two years later, in November 2018, the city’s transit authority – the Bangkok Metropolitan Authority (BMA) – replaced the diesel engine in a 40 passenger river vessel with twin 10kW Torqeedo Cruise motors. The PM celebrated the launch and touted Thailand’s green future by using a trip on the e-boat as the final leg in a symbolic zero-emission commute that included trips by foot, skytrain and subway.
Next up was a private utility company, Energy Absolute, which announced plans in February 2019 to build and operate a fleet of electric commuter ferries that would hook up with the government-run parts of the revived river transport system.
‘Tesla of Southeast Asia’
EA is sometimes called the Tesla of Southeast Asia because its dynamic founder and CEO, billionaire Somphote Ahunai, is building an integrated network of assets that includes an EV factory, solar and wind farms, battery manufacturing facilities, the new electric ferries – and the chargers that can connect them all.
The EV plant is making 5,000 ‘Mine Mobility’ electric sedans by early 2020 for use as taxis. The e-ferries will be powered by 800 kWh li-ion units from the company’s US$3 billion battery factory, and they will be serviced by a network of fast charge poles that can ‘fill them up’ in about 15 minutes.
The boats themselves are aluminum-alloy electric vessels, 24 m • 78 ft aluminum catamarans, each with a capacity of 200 passengers, a range of 80-100 km • 50-62 miles and able to go for two to four hours on the water without recharging. Energy Absolute is building 24 of them, 20 other e-boats, and investing 1 billion baht (US$33 million) in the business.
Potential electric ferry capital of the world has 2,600 km of canals
Here’s a bit of an overview before we get on to the next chapters in this story:
Bangkok lies at the mouth of the 372 km • 230 mile long Chao Praya river, which irrigates and winds down through Thailand’s northern agricultural lands and drains an area adding up to about 1/3 of the entire country.
Bangkok has been known in the past as the ‘Venice of the East’ because the delta of the river spreads out into a spider web of canals, or ‘khlongs’, written คลอง in Thai. The khlongs were, and are, used for transportation and as the sites of traditional food markets with floating boat ‘stalls’ – some of which still exist, mainly as tourist attractions. The canals are also an integral and essential part of Bangok life.
Most of the khlongs have been filled in, but a there are still 1,682 of them with a total length of 2,604 kilometres • 1,600 miles. They are divided into three parts:
- the main Chao Phraya River
- Khlong Saen Saeb, which cuts across the city from east to west and
- a network of canals on one side of the Chao Praya collectively called ‘Khlongs of Thonburi‘
There are hundreds and hundreds of boats on the khlongs, serving every kind of passenger with privately operated river taxis (also called express boats), river cruisers, hotel shuffle boats, long boats – kind of like giant 24 passenger gondolas – and the ferry/canal boats used for public transportation.
The 18 km • 11m Saen Saeb route carries 60,000 passengers a day in about 100 boats that unload and unload passengers at chaotic docks that are like riverside subway stations.
All of these boats create a lot of gas and diesel pollution in the khlongs, generate a lot of noise, and even more emissions, especially toxic particulate matter (PM 2.5). The city’s schools were closed in January of 2019 because of air pollution and the city’s 2020 marathon was almost cancelled. Not that this is all the fault of the boats, but they have definitely not been part of the solution. Until now.
Electric ferries coming into play all over the world
It seems Bangkok, and Thailand as a whole, is ready to not only join the electric ferry brigade, but lead it. Here’s a short (incomplete) overview of what is happening around the world:
- Denmark: Almost exactly one year ago, the world’s largest battery powered ferry, e-Ferry Ellen, made its maiden voyage.
- Canada and the United States: the world’s busiest ferry systems are adding hybrids to their fleets
- Sweden: Green City Ferries is ready to commercialize their successful 24m prototype
- Norway has electric ferries and commissioned some exciting high speed concepts
- Ireland: A consortium just received £60M to build futuristic zero emission ferries
- Malta and Greece are both adding electric or hybrid ferries and
- the winner of Plugboats’ Gustave Trouvé Awards for Paying Passenger Electric Boats was the solar-powered ferry Aditya in Kerala, India, which uses only $2.60 of electricity a day to transport almost 600,00 passengers a year.
Last December we wrote about China’s first electric ferry, launched in the then-relatively unknown city of Wuhan. Wuhan is now known, of course, as the ‘ground zero’ of COVID-19, which brings us to the next chapter in the story of Bangkok as the emerging electric ferry capital of the world.
Government, corporations and educators contributing
As with so many things, the emergence and impact of COVID-19 derailed some of the plans Thailand and Bangkok had set out for the electrification of water transportation. Both the BMA and Energy Absolute had been aiming for the summer of 2020 to start their services, but that obviously became unrealistic.
They were still working away, though. In March the BMA authorized the purchase of seven 30 passenger electric canal boats to begin operations this December. They will be introduced in the ‘Khlongs of Thonburi’ region and will be free of charge for the first three months, with the expectation that the final price will be between 5-10 baht per trip. (About €0,15 – 0,30 • US$ .16 – .32).
August has been the big month, though. It was on the 6th that the Marine Department made their announcement and displayed a new 100 passenger electric ferry they have been developing with the engineering faculties of Kasetsart University. It can travel at 22 kmh • 15 mph and will go into service on the Saen Saeb commuter run.
On August 21 Energy Absolute launched the first of their fully completed catamarans, the Mine Smart Ferry. This is one of the big steps, as these boats will operate on the main Chao Praya river. One of the reasons is that the big river is best suited for installation of the charging systems. EA said the 24 ferries, and 20 electric river cruisers will be in service by the end of 2020 with another 10 cruisers scheduled for 2021.
Now someone else has joined in – Banpu – another big player in Thailand new energy. They’ll be starting trials of their Banpu Next e-Ferry, totally apart from the Bangkok commuter and canal boats, concentrating on tourists in the Phuket area. Phuket has tens of thousands of domestic and international visitors, 33 islands and dozens of ferry companies, one of them making as many as 44 trips each day.
The final aspect of Bangkok’s transition to electric ferries and commercial boats lies with the private companies. The largest, the Chao Praya Express Boat company, serves both local commuters and tourists and will be operating the EA catamarans. They own 70 boats themselves and another operator, Sansab, owns 60.
They, along with the hotel boats, will be looking at the economics and are hopeful that battery prices will drop dramatically in the next few years. That may seem optimistic, but who knows what can be worked out – maybe in terms of leases – if it is all an integrated Energy Absolute system that generates the electricity, builds the batteries and owns the charging stations.
Even without that, Bangkok and Thailand are poised for massive growth in electric commuter ferries that may one day make ‘the Venice of the East’ the ‘Electric Ferry Capital of the World’.