In Pacific Northwest, the ferries are going electric

Source: David Ferris, E&E News reporter • Posted: Saturday, July 7, 2018

SEATTLE — Three giant ferries on Puget Sound are scheduled to switch from diesel to electric in the next five years, a signal flag that yet another sector is starting to choose batteries over fuel.

The boats — the Puyallup, Wenatchee and Tacoma — are gentle behemoths, carrying up to 2,500 passengers and 202 vehicles from the mainland to the other shore. They are the largest in the fleet and among the largest ever to consider ditching oil.

For the Washington State Department of Transportation, which operates the vast ferry system, batteries are exerting a tidal pull.

“Technology is available to electrify these vessels,” according to a January report by the department, which noted that doing so would reduce carbon emissions by more than 48,000 tons a year and save millions of dollars over the boats’ lifetimes, even if oil was dirt cheap.

“The added benefit would be a corresponding savings in fuel costs, reduction of health hazards through major reductions in NOX, SOX and particulate emissions” — the major pollutants that accompany burning of diesel fuel — “and a substantial reduction in maintenance costs.”

The green-and-white ships are leading the marine portion of a movement to electrify the largest vehicles.

In California, regulators approved two of the state’s largest utilities to spend $592 million to build the infrastructure to support big electric vehicles, especially around ports (Energywire, June 1). Meanwhile, bus fleets are buying electric models, and major freight manufacturers will soon roll out all-electric tractor-trailers.

For inspiration, Washington has looked to Norway, which has two all-electric car ferries, the Ampere and the Elektra. By 2021, the nation wants to electrify 60 ferries and run its entire fleet on electricity by 2023.

Norway has its fjords, and Washington has Puget Sound, a serpentine archipelago of peninsulas and islands that counts ferries as a part of life. A total of 22 ferries link cities that include Seattle, Tacoma and others as far north as Victoria, the capital of the Canadian province of British Columbia.

In May, state transportation officials boarded the Tacoma with Kåre R. Aas, the Norwegian ambassador to the U.S., for a tour of the engine room.

The Tacoma and the Wenatchee ply the busy route between Seattle and Bainbridge Island. To the north, the Puyallup connects the mainland city of Edmonds to Kingston, a peninsular community. The three are the sole members of a vessel class called Jumbo Mark II that were made exclusively for Washington state in the late 1990s and are built to last decades longer.

The ambassador and officials wore earplugs to defend against the 3,000-kilowatt-hour (kWh) diesel generators, which run so hard that the deck vibrates under passengers’ feet.

Those generators would go quiet under the new proposal.

Floating Prius

The Washington leviathans wouldn’t be fully electric like Norway’s boats. They are too big, and their routes too long, for that. The idea is to remove two of a ship’s four diesel generators and replace them with a massive — but nearly silent — 4,450-kWh bank of lithium-ion batteries, the same basic chemistry found in an iPhone or a Chevrolet Bolt.

The remaining diesel generators would roar to life only under exceptional circumstances, like high winds or a hugely crowded boat, which sometimes happens on holiday weekends or during Seattle Seahawks home games.

Electric for normal operations, fossil fuels in a crunch — kind of like a plug-in Toyota Prius, but on a watercraft that weighs 5,000 tons.

“The people of Washington state are very concerned about climate change. They’re very concerned about greenhouse gas emissions,” Roger Millar, the state’s secretary of transportation, said on board the Tacoma. “We’re moving 25 million people a year on our system, and those three boats are our biggest polluters.”

Indeed, climate change and carbon emissions were foremost on the department’s mind when it started researching the idea.

The department is behind on a state mandate to reduce its emissions by 15 percent by 2020. Turning the three craft electric would slash its fuel use by 26 percent and have it reach the carbon target by 2025.

Where the funding will come from is unknown. The Legislature approved $600,000 to explore the idea, and the state will put out requests for system designs in the coming weeks, said WSDOT spokesman Justin Fujioka.

The conversions will cost from $34 million to almost $36 million per ferry, the department estimates. It is looking for funding, Fujioka added, while laying plans to electrify one boat per year between 2020 and 2022.

The argument for doing so is strengthened by the state’s cost projections. If the most aggressive system were implemented and oil prices stayed low for decades, Washington would net more than $2 million. If diesel gets expensive? It’d be $58 million.

Shipside charging

Filling the batteries is another challenge, considering that the 460-foot-long boats are docked for only 15 minutes as cars rush on and off.

Furthermore, the ships will most likely need to charge on both ends. Between the two routes plied by the Jumbo Mark IIs, three utilities will need to bring a rush of new electrons to the docks.

Those power companies — Seattle City Light, the municipal utility of Seattle; the Snohomish County Public Utility District (PUD); and Puget Sound Energy — said that they’ll be able to do it, though it won’t come cheap.

At the Edmonds dock, for example, Snohomish County PUD estimates that it will cost $10.8 million for a new feeder and substation to supply 10 megawatts of new power in a downtown area of modest shops and residences.

“This would be the single largest load in the area,” said Doug O’Donnell, an executive account manager.

The other landings are nearer high power lines. It would cost Seattle City Light $4.4 million to electrify Seattle’s dock, and Puget Sound Energy a total of $5 million to build charging infrastructure at Bainbridge and Kingston, according to state estimates.

“It’s safe to say that WSDOT will be on the hook for at least a portion of the upgrade costs,” Ian Sterling, a department spokesman, said in an email.

Washington’s unique power mix makes the state confident that electrifying monster ferries will make both financial and environmental sense.

It has some of the lowest electric rates in the country, and among the cleanest, with more than 70 percent of its electricity from hydroelectric dams and more than 6 percent from wind power, according to federal data.

Scrappy Skagit

While the state’s largest ferries, visible from Seattle skyscrapers, are getting all the attention, a smaller Puget Sound ship is fighting the same fight.

In Skagit County, nearly three hours’ drive north, the county commission is scraping money together to replace the Guemes, an almost 40-year-old diesel ferry that motors a short hop between the mainland and tiny Guemes Island.

An investment of $20 million to $26 million could get a new, all-electric craft. So far, the commission has won $7.5 million from the county road administration and just raised the price on ferry tickets to garner an additional $240,000 a year, according to Ken Dahlstedt, a county commissioner who spearheads the effort.

For the remainder, it’s gunning for the same pot of money that its bigger cousins are eyeing — the $2 billion that Volkswagen AG is required to pay for electric vehicle charging infrastructure as a penalty for its diesel cheating scandal. Dahlstedt thinks the little Guemes has a first-mover advantage.

“Our boat is the most logical boat in Puget Sound because it’s not that big,” he said.

He’s motivated by the fuel and maintenance savings he’s hearing out of Norway, as well as the fact that an electric ferry runs much quieter than a diesel one — something that matters a lot in this rain-soaked corner of the country where the health of salmon and orca is often on people’s minds.

“That’s what got us really excited about this,” he said.