Mackinac ferry to go all-electric

84-foot Chippewa, a ferry built in 1962

84-foot Chippewa, a ferry built in 1962A Mackinac Island passenger ferry will be converted to zero-emission electric power with the help of a $3.06 million award from the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy Fuel Transformation Program Part 2.

Star Line, now known as the Mackinac Island Ferry Company (MIFC), will replace two diesel engines with two brand-new electric propulsion motors on the 84-foot Chippewa, a ferry built in 1962. The twin diesels were installed aboard the ferry 20 years after it was first laid down. 

The conversion to electric power will reduce Chippewa’s greenhouse gas emissions by 14,152 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents and 887 metric tons of nitrogen oxides over the vessel’s lifetime. The project begins a two- to three-year overhaul that will redesign and modernize the vessel’s hull and appearance.

The grant covers half the cost of the project, which includes installing 1.5 megawatts in shore power infrastructure at the Mackinaw City ferry dock. Electric power upgrades are also planned for the ports of St. Ignace and Mackinac Island.

As the primary means of transportation to Mackinac Island, ferries serve about 500 year-round islanders and 750,000 visitors a year, with a summer peak of more than 16,500 a day. 

During peak months, ferries make up to 125 round trips daily. Chippewa is expected to carry 250 to 300 passengers after the electric conversion and MIFC’s concurrent redesign and modernization of the vessel.

The project is the first initiative from the Mackinac Island Transportation Master Plan, conducted by the Michigan Department of Transportation as the key piece of a larger initiative to modernize the ferry fleet and freight ships serving the region. That effort includes the transition from fossil fuels, supported by creating local shipbuilding and servicing jobs and a marine industry training hub. 

The long-term goal is to eventually transition all 138 Upper Great Lakes ships in the 50- to 200-ton range to electric or hybrid-electric power.

After converting Chippewa to electric power, MIFC intends to similarly upgrade the propulsion systems on its other seven steel vessels that operate passenger or freight service to Mackinac Island. Eventually, MIFC will evaluate its seven high-speed aluminum passenger vessels for upgrades to electric or hybrid-electric propulsion.

The Chippewa conversion is a pilot project for electrification of 28 Mackinac Island ferries in all. It marks the launch of the Mackinac Economic Alliance’s Mackinac Marine Mobility Strategic Plan to create full-time, year-round marine and shipbuilding jobs in the Straits of Mackinac region. Also partnering in the project is Australia-based marine design firm Incat Crowther.

The state agency plans to deploy recreational and commercial alternative-based fueled or electric powered technologies, and driving private-sector investment to bolster economic development across the state.