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Electric Ferry Under Development in California’s Bay Area

The new vessel will continue a trend that has been seen in other modes of transportation — namely passenger vehicles. If upcoming transit projects are any indicator, ferry use in the region will likely continue to boom.

The nation’s first hydrogen fuel cell-powered ferry is set to be launched in the Bay Area within the next year, continuing a transportation trend to make high-occupancy and other vehicles emissions-free.

The 84-passenger e-ferry, known as the “Water Go Round,” is being developed by SW/TCH Maritime and Golden Gate Zero Emission Marine. The craft is under development at the Bay Ship & Yacht shipyard in Alameda, Calif. It is being built with both private funding and a $3 million grant from the California Air Resources Board. SW/TCH is also involved in the funding and development of a similar electric ferry for New York passengers, using battery-electric technology. Construction will begin on that vessel in 2020, said Pace Ralli, CEO of SW/TCH. The vessels are part of a burgeoning trend. 

Hydrogen fuel cell technology, where hydrogen is mixed with oxygen to create electricity, is becoming increasingly commercially available. Some 6,300 hydrogen fuel cell-powered cars operate in the state.

“The maritime segment is just another application,” said Joe Pratt, CEO and chief technology officer for Golden Gate Zero Emission Marine. “When I worked at Sandia National Laboratories, we studied the range of applicability for hydrogen fuel cells in marine and found that they could power nearly all ranges of vessels in the world's fleet from small fishing boats to even the largest container ships.”

Much like electric cars and buses, electric ferries could also be cheaper to operate than fossil-fuel powered versions, said Pratt.

“This is primarily due to the drastically decreased maintenance required for an all-electric, solid-state drive system compared to that of a complex diesel engine consisting of hundreds of moving parts,” said Pratt. “But it also has to do with the large year-over-year cost reductions of fuel cell technology in the marketplace today."   

Though as is still the case with electric-powered mobility, the upfront costs is generally more costly than a diesel engine. Ralli, with SW/TCH, speculates that electric ferries are about 10 to 20 percent more costly to build. As scaling increases, however, that gap could close.

“At the same time, fuel-cells costs are dropping,” said Pratt. “On a total cost of ownership basis, we are seeing some vessel types that are lower in overall cost with hydrogen fuel cells compared to conventional diesel.”

Ferry ridership in the Bay Area is booming. The San Francisco Bay Area Water Emergency Transportation Authority (WETA), a regional public transit agency, oversees the operation of 14 high-speed, passenger-only ferries in the Bay Area. Ridership has doubled since 2012, said Thomas Hall, public information officer and marketing manager for WETA. The ferry service plans to increase service on popular routes and add new terminals throughout the Bay Area, a nine-county region of more than 7.7 million residents.  

Ferry ridership will likely increase later this year when the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit agency (SMART), a commuter rail line serving cities north of San Francisco, completes an extension line to a ferry terminal in the city of Larkspur. 

WETA, which operates several 400-passeneger capacity ferries, is also exploring how to move passengers across San Francisco Bay more sustainably.

“WETA is really excited to be working on plans to reduce emissions in our fleet going forward,” said Hall. “We’re engaged with marine engineers on how to get to zero or near-zero ferries as we expand the fleet and rehabilitate existing vessels. At the staff level, it’s a major priority.”

It is expected that zero-emission ferries “will play a major role in the U.S. passenger ferry market” in the next five to 10 years, said Ralli. 

“The aging ferry fleet in the U.S. will require near-term renewal with new assets, and adoption of the technology will largely depend on the willingness of infrastructure capital to fund the build of the supporting fueling and charging supply chain,” said Ralli in an email.

The timing will depend on how proactive cities and municipalities — as well as the private sector — are in pushing for zero-emissions transit options, he added.

“We believe there is increasing support for this on both the public and private side,” said Ralli.

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.