Washington State Working to Become the Largest Electrified Ferry Fleet in the World

The Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) is preparing the way to become the world’s largest electrified and hybrid ferry fleet. The move comes as an initial $268 million part of a $1.07 billion spending plan proposed by governor Jay Inslee to reduce Washington State emissions in maritime industry, and to protect Salish Sea orcas and the salmon they rely on. It would begin by converting the largest Jumbo Mark II ferries that run between Seattle and Bainbridge, and Edmonds and Kingston while introducing a new line of 144 car and smaller electrified ferries in future production.

British Cascadia and Washington together already have the worlds largest civilian ferry fleet. In Washington, the iconic ferry fleet causes more air pollution than anything else the WSDOT manages, and officials are eager to reduce those numbers. The three Jumbo Mark II ferries — the Tacoma, Puyallup and Wenatchee —were chosen as a starting point after a study found that the three ferries burn approximately 4.2 million gallons of fuel per year and generate more than 26 percent of the 22 vehicle ferry fleet’s annual emissions. One ferry will burn about about 5,000 gallons of diesel daily to make 10 round-trip crossings.

In total, Washington ferries produce 67 percent of WSDOT’s annual emissions. Targeting the aging diesel fleet is an easy way to greatly reduce transportation related air pollution, which is responsible for nearly one-third of the U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. When converting the ferries, half of the existing diesel generators are taken out and replaced with lithium ion batteries.

Next Steps for Ferry Electrification:

  • Three Jumbo Mark II class ferries — the fleet’s largest, capable of carrying 202 vehicles — will all be converted to hybrids

  • The first conversion should to be completed within two years, the next vessel would be converted in 2021, followed by the third vessel in 2022. Onshore charging stations could be installed in 2023 to wrap up the project.

  • 1990s-era Mark II ferries will be converted at their regularly scheduled propulsion control system overhauls at a cost of $35 million per vessel, but could go as high as $45 million.

  • Five new electrified Olympic Class vehicles are in the works, with the first to be ready by 2022.

  • Skagit County is replacing it’s 40 year old ferry with an all electric ferry to make trips between Anacortes and nearby Guemes Island.

Washington State ferries already run on electric motors with power generated by massive diesel locomotive engines so the move to install charging stations on route stops and batteries on board is a relatively straightforward process. The ferries would keep their existing diesel engines in case of emergency.

The converted ferries will be the largest auto-transporting, hybrid ferries in the world.

Initial efforts to shift to liquified natural gas stalled after lawmakers failed to allocate funding for needed research. Since then, battery technology has grown to the point to make it an easily accessible option, and largely available off-the-shelf.

Right now, Norway leads the world in the development and application of electric technology in transportation and Washington representatives have made repeat trips to learn about the technology. In one example, an all-electric ferry launched in 2015 in Norway reduced carbon-dioxide emissions by 95 percent and operating costs by 80 percent.

“The entire traditional [maritime] industry is shifting around the globe. It’s almost like the shift from sail to steam… We are creating a center for excellence for electrification in the maritime industry for all of North America,” said Joshua Berger, the maritime sector lead for Gov. Jay Inslee at the state’s Department of Commerce.

The ferries make a lot of sense to convert as hybrids because they make short transits between trips for recharging, compared to say cargo ships that travel great distances between ports. They also dock at set spaces, creating an easy situation for creating fast charging stations.

The state has also contracted a Seattle based shipyard Vigor to build the five new Olympic class electrified ferries with the first being completed by 2022. While technically a hybrid, they will be able to run entirely on electric power as well, with the cost coming in at $160-180 million, or just about the same as the $160 million price tag of a standard diesel vehicle. Washington is also helping fund the cost with its share of a recently settled $112.7 million lawsuit from Volkswagen to help pay for the conversions.

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