In the future, ferries could be powered by LNG or electricity

Last month, we went over WSF’s plan to

replace our aging boats with a standard-design boat that can work anywhere in the system. These are the new 144-car Olympic class ferries.

This month, we’ll cover two proposed experiments: a liquefied natural gas (LNG)-fueled ferry and a plug-in hybrid ferry. Both projects convert existing boats and neither adds new boats.

LNG fuel: Plans to convert a ferry to run on either LNG or diesel fuel have been in the works for six years. LNG fuel eliminates sulphur dioxide and particulate emissions. It also reduces nitrous oxide emissions by 90 percent. Using LNG would lower fuel cost and the risk of price volatility, as the U.S. is the world’s largest natural gas producer.

LNG propulsion has been around since 1964. Today, there are about 40 LNG car ferries worldwide. Most are in Norway, which began shifting to LNG for ferries in 2000. Canada has six and is converting two more.

The conversion puts two LNG fuel tanks on the upper deck of an Issaquah ferry. The diesel engines would be modified to run on diesel or LNG. If the LNG works out, other Issaquah and Olympic ferries could be readily converted. If it doesn’t work out the tanks would be easily removed.

If done, the conversion would be paid for by a commercial company which would recover their costs in fuel sales.

Plug-in hybrid ferry: Diesel engines powering electric motors have been common for ferries. A hybrid conversion, which adds a battery, is new for car ferries. Norway built the first electric car ferry in 2016. Today, there are six world-wide. These are typically used on short (e.g. 2.5 miles) runs with frequent opportunities to recharge.

WSF’s project would add a battery to a Jumbo Mark II ferry and take out one of its four diesels. Why take out a diesel? Glad you asked. This engine reduction qualifies WSF to tap into the penalties paid by Volkswagen for their emissions scandal.

The ferry’s battery could be charged either by the remaining three diesels or by shore power when docked. The former would allow the boat to operate from any terminal. Charging from shore power would require a charging facility and a robust local electrical power grid.

If successful, the remaining two Jumbo IIs could be converted. Going beyond those boats would require a new ferry design and bring an end to building the Olympic class boats after only four deliveries.

The bigger picture: Is it a wise decision to go forward with either experiment? To accomplish either conversion, existing boats would be taken off line. Because of our limited fleet size and service demands, there’s a growing problem of overdue ferry maintenance. When properly maintained, ferries can last 60 years. Four of our boats are 50 years old and two are 59 years old, and there’s still no replacement program.

New projects always experience unplanned problems or challenges. Think the Alaskan Way Viaduct tunnel. With a robust ferry fleet, the impact would be manageable if one of these conversions became a problem. With our ferries operating on the margins, these projects risk losing service.

It’s hard to see the wisdom of experimenting with either an Issaquah ferry, which is the mainstay of the fleet, or the Jumbo II ferry, the largest ferry in our fleet. Instead, State Ferries needs to keep its focus on their mission of sustaining reliable, basic transportation. Continued production of the 144-car boats and a standardized fleet of cost-effective ferries would accomplish that mission.

FastCat fiasco: In 1998, British Columbia’s New Democratic Party sought to juice up Canada’s shipbuilding industry by taking a leap into the fledgling, really large catamaran business. They spent $460 million for three 250-car, 37-knot “FastCats.”

After a year’s service, they were put up for auction, eventually selling for $19 million — a $600 million loss in today’s dollars. The fiasco brought down the government and led to privatization of BC Ferries.

Your Kingston Ferry Advisory Committee meets at 6:30 p.m. the second Monday of each month at Village Green Community Center. Email

— Walt Elliott is chairman of the Kingston Ferry Advisory Committee.