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Ports, Watercraft Are Also Making the Jump to Electric Tech

Ferries and other heavy equipment in Alabama, California and other locations are making the switch to electric power, as the maritime industry looks for ways to break away from fossil fuel propulsion.

An aerial view of the Port of Long Beach with a marina in the foreground.
The electrification of transportation is moving well beyond cars and bikes, and has spread to the maritime sector.

Major ports, like the one in Long Beach, Calif., are transitioning vehicles like forklifts, drayage trucks and even tugboats to emissions-free power. Meanwhile, ferry operators on rivers and other waterways are also eyeing all-electric propulsion.

A ferry serving Angel Island State Park in the San Francisco Bay will be retrofitted as a battery-electric vessel, while a ferry in Gee’s Bend, Ala., on the Alabama River went into service in 2019. The Gee’s Bend ferry is owned by the Alabama Department of Transportation and operated by City Experiences, a division of water transportation services company Hornblower Group.

“Over the last 15 years, Hornblower has been at the forefront of implementing environmentally conscious, emissions-reducing solutions across a wide range of propulsion systems and energy inputs,” said Tim Aguirre, general manager of HMS Ferries Alabama.

The 18-vehicle, 129-passenger ferry in Alabama connects Gee’s Bend with Camden. The distance is only about 1.5 nautical miles, making plugin, battery-electric technology the most sensible choice, said Aguirre, given battery range and charging abilities.

The ferry in San Francisco Bay, to go online in the next couple of years, will also be battery-electric.

“A long-distance ferry probably isn’t right for electrification with today’s technology. But a short-run ferry like Angel Island Ferry, that goes 1.1 miles to Angel Island and 1.1 miles back, is perfect for electrification,” said Graham Balch, managing broker of Green Yachts. “Not only does it reduce emissions, but it helps demonstrate viability in the marine sector for electrification.”

Meanwhile, SWITCH Maritime is developing a hydrogen fuel cell ferry, known as the Sea Change, also planned to operate in the San Francisco Bay. The vessel is being developed as a 70-foot, 75-passenger ferry. Hornblower is partnering on the project, acting as a systems integrator.

“At the leading edge of maritime decarbonization, the Sea Change will create a foundation for scaling hydrogen powertrain technology to ships of all types and sizes,” said Aguirre.

The use cases for electrification are also being tried and tested at port facilities. Funding from the California Air Resources Board (CARB) and other public agencies is aiding in the electrification of port activities in Long Beach, Stockton and other California cities. An electric forklift fleet is in operation in Stockton, while the Long Beach port has introduced zero-emission equipment in the form of forklifts, drayage trucks, cranes and a new “plugin-hybrid, zero-emission-capable tugboat,” said Leela Rao, an environmental specialist with the Port of Long Beach.

“The funding has been critical, for the port and our tenants,” said Rao, speaking last week on a panel during the annual Veloz summit, which focuses on the development of the electric vehicle industry, and the public policy put in place to advance it. “The projects have taught us so much.”

Balch also underscored the essential nature of grant funding at this stage in the evolution of electric ferries. The Angel Island Ferry project — a retrofit of a conventional diesel ferry — was awarded $1.3 million made available by the Volkswagen settlement, a gigantic package of fees and fines attached to the German automaker following the 2016 revelation that Volkswagen diesel engines were fraudulently bypassing pollution controls.

However, Balch lamented the project was passed over for funding by U.S. Department of Transportation, which seemed to prefer projects in Alaska and Maine.

Balch and others point to reductions in greenhouse gas emissions the electrification of the maritime industry can bring. Global emissions from maritime vessels account for about 3 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions annually, said Matt Hart, chief operations officer for Momentum, a renewable energy and semiconductor manufacturing company in Sacramento, Calif. There are some 40,000 commercial vessels and 360 commercial seaports in the United States, transporting people and goods.

“The marine sector, if it were a country, would have the sixth largest GHG emissions of any country in the world,” said Balch. “Electrifying short-run marine vessels helps our world begin to address these global emissions and is an essential part of our global effort to reduce climate change.”
Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.