Washington state plans to convert three largest ferries to hybrids


Washington state has begun an effort to convert its three largest ferries from diesel to hybrid-electric power over the next few years to reduce fuel consumption and emissions.

Following the promising results of an initial study published in February, the state’s 2018 transportation budget included $600,000 to explore the conversion further. The study estimated the cost of conversion at about $30 million per vessel, with additional funding needed to modify ferry terminals to accommodate charging facilities.

“We fully expect these conversions to pay for themselves in short order,” said Ian Sterling, communications director for Washington State Ferries (WSF). “After that, there are continuing advantages when it comes to fuel costs.”

Washington produces some of the cleanest electricity in the country, with prices far below the national average. Though it’s difficult to predict fuel costs, the conversions are expected to save an estimated $60 million over the next four decades.

“We’re still working out the details, but we’ve been given a green light to engage industry,” Sterling said. The state planned to issue a request for proposals for the conversions during the summer.

Washington State Ferries’ 22-ship fleet is the largest of its kind in the country. The fleet is also the largest producer of greenhouse gases among the entities overseen by the Washington State Department of Transportation, accounting for 67 percent of total emissions, according to the WSDOT. The initial conversion study, prepared by Seattle-based Elliott Bay Design Group, found that this project alone could accomplish a “huge share” of emission reduction targets set by the Legislature.

The largest ferries in the fleet — Puyallup, Tacoma and Wenatchee — comprise the double-ended Jumbo Mark II class. Powered by diesel-electric systems, they serve the Seattle-to-Bainbridge and Edmonds-to-Kingston runs, crossing about eight miles in just under half an hour. Each vessel can carry up to 202 vehicles and 2,500 passengers. Together they consume 26 percent of the fleet’s fuel, almost 5 million gallons annually, and emit more than 50,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) each year.

The propulsion control system on the three ferries became obsolete shortly after they entered service in the late 1990s. Conversion would involve the installation of massive banks of batteries below deck, as well as modifications to heating, cooling, ventilation and fire extinguishing systems. The additional weight largely would be offset by the reduction in fuel load.

As other industries adopt cleaner fuel technologies, the International Council on Clean Transportation has said that the maritime industry could be responsible for 17 percent of CO2 emissions by 2050, up from the current 2 to 3 percent. Battery technology is not yet viable for ocean crossings, but ferries limited to localized routes are a more obvious fit.

“We looked at this back in 2012, but the technology wasn’t there yet,” Sterling said. “Now it definitely is, but the big question is, how do you fund this?”

The state is designated to receive more than $112 million in a federal settlement with the automaker Volkswagen, which violated the Clean Air Act by installing illegal software on vehicles for emissions testing. WSDOT hopes a share of that money can be used to help with conversion costs.

“The (VW) settlement fund came with some stipulations about what it could be used for,” Sterling said. “This seems like it might be a great and obvious fit. That’s up to the Legislature. But we’re very optimistic.”

By Professional Mariner Staff