World’s busiest ferry systems going electric hybrid

Good news from the west coast of North America where the world’s second and fourth busiest ferry services – in Washington state and the province of British Columbia (BC) – announced purchases of electric hybrid ferries within days of each other.

A combined route map of the ferries of Wasdhington State and British Columbia ferriesTogether the services carry 46.5 million passengers a year and service 67 ports with a fleet of 65 passenger-and-car carrying vessels. The whole area – the USA side is known as the Pacific Northwest and the Canadian side as the Lower Mainland – has a population of between 7 and 8 million. (Hong Kong’s Star Ferry system is busiest: 26M/yr, NY’s Staten Island 3rd busiest: 23.9M)

Washington State Ferries on the USA side is starting by converting its 3 largest ferries – the Tacoma, Puyallup and Wenatchee – to electric hybrid. They each carry up to 2500 passengers and generally run routes of 6 nautical miles in and around Seattle. BC Ferries is ordering four new vessels to add to the order of 2 hybrids it placed last year.  These are callled Island Class ferries because they run from the mainland to an archipelago of nearby small islands.

Norway has been the leader in electrifying ferries for the past few years, and the world’s largest all-electric ferry just completed its maiden voyage in Denmark, but it looks like North America is catching up!

BC electric hybrid ferries ready for Christmas

The initial 2 BC ferries were ordered in 2018 and sea trials were completed the first week of November. Capt. Jamie Marshall, B.C. Ferries vice-president of business development and innovation, told the Vancouver Sun that “We anticipate getting them in time for Christmas or shortly thereafter.”

In Washington the 3 conversions should be ready for 2021 and will be followed by 5 new boats to be launched between 2022 and 2028.

The 13 ferries have varying balances between all electric battery propulsion and diesel/electric hybrid, and that balance will change over time even for individual ferries.

The BC boats initially use diesel fuel to generate electricity that is then stored in on-board batteries. In the Washington conversions the plan is to remove two of the four diesel engines in the Jumbo Mark III ships and replace them with battery packs. The new vessels are smaller Olympic class ferries and will obviously be planned as hybrid electric from the start.

2500-passenger ferries burn 18M litres of diesel/year

diagram of the ferry Puyallup which is being converted to electric-hybrid

The Washington State Department of Transportation says the huge Seattle ferries together burn through 4.7 Million gallons of diesel each year: almost 18 Million litres. That is just over a quarter of the whole system’s 18 Million gallon / 68 Million litre annual burn.

The US conversions to electric hybrid are being done by Siemens and Seattle’s Vigor Industrial is working on the new fleet. The BC ferries are being built by Netherlands company Damen, (see launch video below) who are also building electric ferries for use in the St. Lawrence River and the world’s first electric tugboat for the Ports of Aukland.

The challenge faced by both ferry organizations is not the boats, but the charging systems. As BC Ferries CEO Mark Collins told the CBC news network “”They’re designed to go full electric when the shore infrastructure permits. Perhaps a better way to look at them is to say these are all-electric ferries in which we have temporarily installed a hybrid system.”

Washington State Ferries spokesman told the Seattle weekly that to be able to run an electric fleet, charging stations have to be designed and built, and the state has to coordinate that work with various utilities providers.

All electric as soon as possible

The goal for everyone is to go all electric as quickly as infrastructure and finances will allow.

In Canada, no firm date has been set, largely because the biggest challenge beyond infrastructure for the Island Class fleet is converting larger ferries like the Spirit Class, which run 30 nautical miles, 90 to 120 minute routes from the mainland to Vancouver Island.

Washington State Ferries set a goal in its 2040 long range plan that in 20 years, 22 of 26 boats in the fleet would be plug-in hybrids and most terminals would have charging stations.

“It will take a long time to be all-electric, but that’s ultimately where we want to be,” Sterling said.

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