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Electric Ferries, Controlled Growth: Environmentalists Push Steamship Authority for Sustainable Future

Electric Ferry
Washington State Ferries
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The Washington State ferry service is expected to begin converting one of its largest ferries, the Wenatchee, pictured here, from diesel to hybrid-electric propulsion by late 2021. Converting the Wenatchee and two other Jumbo Mark II ferries will reduce carbon emissions by 48,565 metric tons/year – the equivalent of taking more than 10,000 cars off the road.

This summer, a Steamship Authority ferry will depart the terminal in Woods Hole 31 times a day. So on a recent Sunday morning, the surrounding area was packed with buses, taxis, and travelers sitting on luggage as they waited to board.

“So the buses are diesel. You can smell them a little bit,” said Doug Brugge, professor and chair of the Department of Public Health Sciences at the University of Connecticut. “And whether the ferry is the main concern, or the traffic is a bigger concern, is something that comes to my mind sitting here.”

The concerns for Brugge, author of, “Particles in the Air: The Deadliest Pollutant is One You Breathe Every Day,” revolve around the human health impacts of air pollution.

“Oh, you can see the smoke,” he said, pointing to a dark plume blowing seaward as a ferry pulled away from the dock. “So what you're seeing is the black carbon, and those are larger particles that are more visible. But within the cloud, there's also a lot of smaller particles that are more easily respirated into the lungs.”

Not only does the burning of diesel fuel by buses and boats contribute to climate change, the particles in the exhaust clouds have been connected to all kinds of human health risks.

But environmentalists say it doesn’t have to be this way. As ferry ridership is projected to increase year after year — and as the region grapples with the question of what a sustainable future looks like — environmentalists say the answer begins with clean energy.

“Well, I think it starts with getting off of fossil fuels. That's number one,” said Ben Robinson, who sits on the Climate Action Task Force on the Martha’s Vineyard Commission. He said he’s eager to see the Steamship Authority make the transition away from traditional diesel-fuel-powered ferries that have been used for the last 80 years.

That would put the Steamship Authority on a course already being set by other ferry services.

“What we're seeing really take over — especially in the ferry industry globally, and we're just kind of starting to see it here in the U.S. — is a full battery-powered ferry,” said Bruce Strupp, a senior account manager with ABB Marine and Ports, a marine engineering firm helping ferry operators do everything from retrofitting or buying new electric ferries to installing shore-side charging systems.

Strupp was asked by the Vineyard’s Climate Action Task Force to compare the long-term costs of traditional diesel versus an electric ferry running from Woods Hole to Vineyard Haven.

“Assuming a 25-year life of the vessel, for a diesel-mechanical plant, you'd spend almost $32 million over the life of that vessel,” he said. “For a battery-powered vessel, you see it's only $20.7 million.”

The main difference is fuel: electricity is cheaper than diesel.

Passengers board a ferry in Woods Hole.
Liz Lerner
Passengers board a ferry in Woods Hole.

The challenge for ferry operators is the cultural shift and upfront cost. Whether it’s retrofitting a ferry to battery power or building a new one, an electric ferry will have a higher sticker price.

“It's just like if you're shopping for a refrigerator or freezer: you know this one's much better, but this one over here is within your budget,” Strupp said. “So you're going to buy that [cheaper one], even though, over the long haul, you know that other one's a better solution.”

Washington State Provides a Template

In an email, the Steamship Authority’s spokesman, Sean Driscoll, said he was not able to comment on Strupp’s report because it was not directly commissioned by the authority. However, he added, “electric ferries certainly appear to be the future of the industry,” and the authority has “contracted with a third-party consultant to investigate” the possibilities.

Driscoll said the authority will be looking at other ferry operators, including Washington State Ferries, to learn from their experiences.

In Washington State, the ferry service carries nearly 25 million passengers a year — compared to the Steamship Authority’s 3 million — and is beginning the process of converting its three largest ferries from diesel fuel to electric power.

There is currently no timeline to get electric ferries into the Steamship Authority’s fleet, which is disappointing to Martha’s Vineyard Commissioner Ben Robinson. “We may have to wait until the next generations are in charge,” he said. “And the question in my mind is, ‘Is that too late?’”

According to a 2018 report, on the Vineyard alone, the Steamship Authority burned 1.29 million gallons of diesel fuel, and its operations account for more than 11 percent of the island’s fossil fuel use. Environmentalists say electric boats are key to lowering the island’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Sustainability Means More Than Just Green Fuel

In the meantime, Robinson said, transportation planners can’t just think about the end point that is the ferry service, but where it fits in a regional context.

“How does it tie into other changes around commuter rail so that we're not all driving cars down to the ferry, but allowing for more pedestrians, allowing for more bicycle ridership?” he said.

Beyond the most practical concerns, there’s an existential issue baked into Robinson’s questions: How many people should the Steamship Authority carry? Or, put another way, what’s the tipping point for sustainable growth on the islands?

Passengers aboard a Steamship Authority ferry on its way to Oak Bluffs.
Liz Lerner
Passengers aboard a Steamship Authority ferry on its way to Oak Bluffs.

“Nobody wants to address that question because it does mean we have to rethink our entire economy,” Robinson said.

Robinson and other environmentalists are pressing for that conversation as soon as possible.

In the meantime, summer is here and the ferries keep chugging along.