(TNS) -- LIVERMORE, Calif. — It started with a simple question: Is it possible to build a commuter ferry capable of competing for customers crossing San Francisco Bay in a vessel completely powered by hydrogen fuel?
Tom Escher wanted to know. He’s been at the helm of tour boat company Red and White Fleet since 1997, after he bought the company his grandfather founded in 1892. Thinking about the world he was leaving his grandchildren, Escher said he was tired of talking merely about reductions in emissions for diesel engines. He wanted to go to zero.
“It’s great to reduce pollution by 10 percent, but we’re never going to get rid of pollution unless we take an aggressive step,” he said.
What followed next was a two-year quest involving a premier research laboratory, over two dozen government agencies and more than a dozen private companies. The result was a feasibility study released late last month, concluding that, yes, it is possible from a regulatory and technical standpoint, but costly.
Where that feasibility study will ultimately lead remains to be seen, but in a region and state on the leading edge of green technology, hope is growing that zero-emissions commuter ferries could one day be plying the bay.
Escher was familiar with hydrogen fuel cells — a nascent but growing industry emerging in California’s personal automobile sector — which, if produced from renewable sources, is truly a zero-emissions technology. So, he brought his question to Livermore’s Sandia National Laboratories, a federally funded research lab focused on national security.
Joe Pratt, a mechanical engineer for Sandia, had heard the question before. And he was accustomed to the same “no thanks” response after laying out the requirements and additional expense that accompany today’s hydrogen fuel-cell technology. But instead of balking, Escher agreed.
“And I said, ‘Well, I don’t know if it’s possible. No one has ever looked at powering a big vessel entirely with hydrogen fuel cells,’ ” Pratt recalled.
There had been small tour boats built with the technology but nothing quite like the workhorses that crisscross the bay, shuttling hundreds of passengers sometimes 20 nautical miles or more each way, several times a day. As luck would have it, the federal Maritime Administration was willing to invest $500,000 to fund Sandia’s study. It was important to everyone involved that the resulting product be as practical as possible. That meant it had to be durable.
Unlike most automobiles, which tend to last an average of roughly 20 years, most vessels can last up to 40 or 50 years, said John Quinn, the Maritime Administration’s associate administrator for the environment and compliance, and they are a major expense for vessel operators.
“If you can’t show (vessel operators) it works, they are hard-pressed to spend the kind of money to get the technology and change the fuels,” said Michael Carter, director of the agency’s Office of Environment.
With that in mind, Pratt assembled a team of experts in hydrogen technology and naval boat design and began reaching out to regulatory agencies and others, ultimately including nearly 50 offices, departments and companies. Their marching orders: design a commuter ferry that would travel at speeds of up to 35 knots, carry 150 passengers, and traverse four, 50-nautical mile round-trip routes each day.
The team had some important questions to answer, such as, “Would it even float?” said Sandia scientist Lennie Klebanoff.
“Could it carry a decent number of passengers? Would it meet the speed requirements of a ferry operating in this highly competitive ferry environment?” he said. “Would it achieve its goals of reducing not only criteria pollutant emissions like smog but also greenhouse gas emissions? That’s just a handful of some of the feasibility questions that were completely unknown going into it.”
And, perhaps more importantly, where would it refuel?
California leads the nation in hydrogen fueling stations with 22 stations operating statewide, another 26 under construction and a goal to reach 100 by 2024, according to the California Energy Commission. But unlike refueling stations for personal vehicles, which have an average daily capacity of 180 kilograms of liquid hydrogen, a hydrogen fuel-cell-powered ferry would need some 2,000 kilograms each day, said Phil Cazel, an air pollution specialist for the commission.
In a stroke of serendipity, a 2016 report by the Air Resources Board found that one of the highest-priority areas in the state for a hydrogen fueling station (or two) is San Francisco. Private operators approached the port earlier this year expressing their interest in applying for a state grant, said Rich Berman, the port’s utilities specialist. And, Elaine Forbes, the port’s interim executive director, issued a letter saying any fueling station, if approved, would also need to support maritime uses.
With the technical and regulatory questions largely out of the way, the final hurdle was cost. Hydrogen ferries cost 2 to 3.5 times as much to build, and are three to five times as expensive to operate as comparable diesel-powered ferries today.
Those estimates threatened to sink the dream, even though the researchers argued that as more people and companies adopt the technology, production would accelerate and costs would decrease. But just to ensure the project moves forward, the Maritime Administration awarded Sandia a second $250,000 grant to further optimize the design and bring down both the capital and operating expenses.
As researchers work on the final stage of analysis, Escher said he is beginning to fund-raise for the money to build it: a boat called the SF Breeze. That, Escher said, will just be the beginning.
“It will be a 30-meter ferry boat, then it will be a 40-meter tugboat and a 70-meter supply boat and a 300-meter ship trading between the U.S. and Hawaii,” he said. “Somebody has to be bold.”
©2016 the Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, Calif.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.