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Could BC’s Future Ferries be Electric?

By Thomas Cheney and Guy Dauncey

Sweden started in 2014 with an electric passenger ferry. This year, Norway will trump that with an electric car ferry. Both will result in lower operating costs, no greenhouse gases, no air pollution and almost no noise.

Here in British Columbia, BC Ferries is facing increasing public concern about rising ferry fares. In response, it is converting two of its Spirit class ferries to liquefied natural gas (LNG) as a cleaner and cheaper alternative to diesel, and building three new smaller LNG ferries that will last half a century, using gas supplied by FortisBC.

When combusted, LNG produce fewer air pollutants and 8% less greenhouse gas emissions than diesel, but there is strong evidence from America that the fugitive methane leakages that occur during and after fracking make the lifecycle emissions of natural gas higher than diesel. Until there is real-time measurement of the methane leakage from BC’s natural gas fields, the jury is out on whether LNG is better or worse from a climate perspective.

If our ferries were electric, there would be an almost 100% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, since our electricity is close to zero carbon, and there would be a big reduction in operating costs. But is it possible?

Electric boats have been around since the late 19th century, and electric submarines for much of the 20th century, but electric ferries have only recently been conceived as a commercial possibility.

Sweden’s New Electric Passenger Ferry

Sweden’s newly retrofitted electric ferry, the Movitz, carries 100 passengers on a one-hour Stockholm inner city route. It has two 125 kW electric motors and 180 kWh batteries that are supercharged during the ten-minute turnaround using renewable electricity—basically a glorified marine version of Tesla’s Supercharger. For the technically-minded, the batteries are high-power density lithium-titanate-oxide and super-advanced nickel-metal-hydride.

Before its retrofit, the Movitz had a 250 kW diesel engine that burnt 50,000 litres of diesel, cost 30% more to run and produced 130 tonnes of carbon dioxide and 1.5 tonnes of nitrous oxide a year, as well as making a lot of noise. The company behind the ferry, Echandia Marine, was founded in 2008, and is embarking on other projects to launch passenger electric ferries around Europe. 

Norway’s New Electric Car Ferry

In Norway, meanwhile, the Ministry of Transportation wanted to protect the idyllic surroundings of Sognefjord (Norway’s longest fjord)  by replacing a retiring diesel ferry with a cleaner and quieter electric ferry. The contract for the route ended in 2015, so the government decided to award the route to whoever came up with the most environmentally-friendly ferry. The contest was won by the Norwegian ferry operator Norled with its innovative ZeroCat, which is being built in partnership with Siemens at the Norwegian shipyard Fjellstrand, and is due to begin operation this spring.

The 80-meter ZeroCat will carry 120 cars and 360 passengers, making 34 trips a day on a 20-minute, 5.7 kilometre route that links two villages across the fjord. It has a catamaran design with two slim hulls that offer less resistance to the water, and the hulls are made from aluminum, which is much lighter than steel. Even with an 800 kWh battery that weighs ten tonnes, the ferry’s weight is half that of a conventional ferry. 

LED Lights, Solar Panels and BlueDrive

In addition to being electric, the ZeroCat has LED lighting, solar panels, on-demand electric water heaters and waste heat recovery units. It has two 450 kW electric motors, one of which drives its Rolls Royce Azipull thrusters, enabling it to operate at ten knots. It also utilizes the Siemens BlueDrive PlusC system of variable speed propulsion, incorporating a host of technical advances. If you want to dig in, Siemens have a video and a brochure.  

The ferry supercharges from a 260 kWh shore battery during its ten-minute turnaround, and the battery is slowly recharged from the grid using 100% renewable power. In September 2014, the ZeroCat won the prestigious “Ship of the Year” industry award, presented in Hamburg.

The ferry it is replacing, by contrast, burnt a million litres of diesel a year and produced 2,680 tonnes of CO2 and 37 tonnes of nitrogen oxide air pollutants. Norled has identified fifty routes of up to 30 minutes in duration in Norway and beyond where electric ferries would be viable.

What about British Columbia?

BC Ferries has eight routes of 30 minutes of less where an electric ferry could operate (see list below), or nine when battery technology improves to 35 minutes for the Salt Spring to Swartz Bay route. BC ferries has already installed a hybrid battery system on its newly retrofitted MV Tachek, which serves the Quadra to Cortes Island route, and many of BC Ferries' vessels use diesel-powered electric drive, maybe making it possible that some ferries could be retrofitted. There are also several privately operated inland ferries overseen by the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure that have routes of 35' or less. 

The Ferries of the Future

Over time, might it be possible that the longer routes between Vancouver Island and the mainland could also be electric? The challenge for larger ferries is one of weight as well as distance, for the Spirit class vessels have a displacement of 11,000 tonnes, compared to around 1,000 tonnes for the ZeroCat. A 3-fold increase in distance combined with a tenfold increase in weight would require a 30-fold increase in battery power. Even if new ferries were half the weight, they would still need a 15-fold improvement in battery power. The large ferries of the future may require added biofuel, or hydrogen derived from renewable sources, to generate additional electricity en route.

Maybe our travel habits will change, driven by the climate crisis, and we will no longer expect to take a car on a ferry, travelling instead by public transit or SkyTrain and renting a carshare vehicle at our place of destination if we need one. Maybe the cargo of the future will be conveyed in capsules, speeding along highways and under our cities in two-metre wide tubes, as the designers of the Cargo-Cap are imagining at the Ruhr University of Bochum in Germany. 

One thing sure is that the climate crisis is compelling us to think beyond diesel and natural gas, and to apply our engineering skill and ingenuity to come up with solutions that no longer require the use of fossil fuels. Sooner or later, every ferry in the world will stop using diesel, and the companies that lead the drive will see great commercial success. Right now, Sweden’s Echandia Marine, Norway’s Norled and Germany’s Siemens have taken an unchallenged lead. With our busy coastlines, it would be great to see a Canadian engineering company working in partnership with BC Ferries to compete for the lead.

With their electricity coming from hydro, wind and solar power, the ferries of the future may once again be propelled by the elements, instead of by fossil fuels.

Thomas Cheney is a masters student researching climate policy at the University of Northern British Columbia.

Guy Dauncey is author of The Climate Challenge: 101 Solutions to Global Warming, and Communications Director of the BCSEA.


BC Ferries Shorter Coastal Routes

Bowen Island-Vancouver 20’

Langdale to Gambier Island and Keats Island

Brentwood-Mill Bay 25’

Buckley Bay to Denman 10’

Denman to Hornby 10’

Swartz Bay to Fulford 35’

Salt Spring to Crofton 20’

Campbell River to Quadra 10’

Skidegate to Alliford Bay 20’

Inland Routes (Ministry of Transportation & Infrastructure)

Arrow Park Ferry 5'

Barnstone Island Ferry 5'

Big Bar Ferry 10'

Francois Lake 15'

Kootenay Lake Ferry 35'

Lytton Ferry 5'

McClure Ferry 5'

Upper Arrow Lake Ferry 20'

Usk Ferry 5'-7'