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San Francisco Sees Delivery of $3M All-Electric Ferry

The zero-emission ferry is a first in the United States, powered entirely by hydrogen fuel cell technology. The vessel will begin taking passengers on rides along the San Francisco waterfront in late spring.

(TNS) — A new all-electric, zero-emissions ferry arrived in San Francisco by tugboat from Washington state on Sunday afternoon. Considered the first commercial maritime vessel in the United States powered entirely by hydrogen fuel cell technology, it will begin taking passengers on rides along the San Francisco waterfront in late spring.

Developed with $3 million in state funding, the 75-passenger catamaran called the Sea Change is the part of a push by the San Francisco Bay Area Water Emergency Transportation Authority, which operates ferry service in a large part of the bay, to eventually phase out diesel ferries, which produce black puffs of noxious pollutants as they chug through the water.

The agency also plans to roll out battery-electric ferries soon (in a separate program, the Angel Island Ferry Co. plans to electrify its ferry between Tiburon and the island next year). The fuel cell electric ferry is a pilot project meant to demonstrate another zero-emissions alternative for passenger ferries and the larger shipping industry, which at almost 3% of global greenhouse gas emissions has a bigger carbon footprint than air transportation.

"We're ecstatic about seeing it finally get into operation," said Pace Ralli, CEO of Switch Maritime, the lead developer of the ferry with the Bay Area Air Quality Management District. The project faced many delays during the pandemic.

In a fuel cell, hydrogen fuel combines with oxygen from the air, creating electricity and water via an electrochemical process.

Using fuel cells to produce electricity, Ralli said, is "a monumental step, because hydrogen and hydrogen-based fuels are seen as a pathway to zero-carbon solutions for large, high-horsepower applications like ships."

The Sea Change can operate for 16 hours before being refueled at the end of the day from a tank at the harbor, similar to the diesel ferries in the fleet, Ralli said. The major difference is that the only emissions are water vapor.

"If you've ever taken a ferry, you're right next to the diesel exhaust, and the wind will swirl it all around," said Todd Sterling, air pollution specialist at the California Air Resources Board. "So this is something that is zero emission and it doesn't affect people that are right on the vessel."

The California Air Resources Board provided the $3 million grant to the Bay Area Air Quality Management District to work with Switch Maritime and other companies to develop the technology used in the Sea Change, part of $20 million in grants from cap-and-trade auction proceeds for advanced technology vehicles and equipment.

"The project is the first of its kind," said Sterling. "We want to prove that this type of technology will work in day-to-day service so that other vessel types and other vessel owners can pick it up," he said, such as charter fishing boats, sightseeing boats and various vessels that crisscross the bay.

Because it's the first, the Sea Change — at 70 feet long — is smaller than most passenger ferries that operate in San Francisco Bay. It also moves slower, typically operating at around 11 knots (13 mph) compared to larger diesel ferries that traverse the bay at 34 knots (40 mph).

For those reasons, the new ferry will stay on the San Francisco waterfront, though its exact route hasn't been announced, said Thomas Hall, spokesman for the Water Emergency Transportation Authority, which operates San Francisco Bay Ferry Service.

The ferry cost about $14 million to build; additional vessels will be cheaper, likely costing 30% more to make than traditional diesel ferries, Ralli said.

Though it does not release greenhouse gases during operation, it will take a while until the operators can secure a reliable source of what's called green or zero-emissions hydrogen, which is produced by using renewable energy to split water into oxygen and hydrogen. Hydrogen that is currently available is produced with methane gas — and splitting it creates carbon dioxide. Ralli hopes green hydrogen is available shortly as a market for it is developed.

In a recent open letter, a coalition of environmental groups called on the California Air Resources Board to adopt a zero-emission standard for all marine vessels by 2040, citing health risks caused by pollution at harbors and during shipping.

The Water Emergency Transportation Authority plans to exceed the state's requirement to transfer its fleet to zero emissions by 2025 on all short routes, Hall said.

"We're really excited by the opportunity to train our crews and captain on how this operates," said Hall. "It's going to be a huge learning experience to test it out and see how it informs our electrification process."

©2023 the San Francisco Chronicle, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.