In a move to duck the tab for surging gas prices, the Department of Transportation is begging legislators for a ferry fuel surcharge. This surcharge would “recover cumulative deficits in the fuel budget” with up to a 20 percent fare increase. That’s on top of Gov. Chris Gregoire’s 10 percent fare hike. For years we’ve petitioned Washington State Ferries, Transportation, and the governor to allow riders a voice in this scheme. We not only haven’t been given a seat at the table, they haven’t even let us into the room. Implore our legislators to say “No sur!”
It’s a gas
Strategies being pursued to cut ferry fuel costs include running our Jumbo II Ferries on fewer engines (working now), reducing speeds (detrimental to schedules), and slowing the engines while loading and unloading. The most prodigious savings would come from using natural gas fuel.
Why natural gas? Natural gas saves about 30 percent on the fuel bill (based on $80 per barrel of oil) and allows 30 percent carbon footprint reduction, and possibly more if using “biomass gas.”
It virtually eliminates air quality emissions. That includes the particulates we smell and see when the boats leave Kingston and which becomes grime on the topside ferry benches.
As a “clean” alternative fuel, we may cash in on the incentives, tax rebates, and grants that trucks and buses get. Natural gas reduces the cost of adding equipment on ferries to meet 2014 emission standards and there’s a lot of natural gas in the U.S., between 110 to 200 years worth (Seattle actually gets its gas from Canada which is also full of it).
What is natural gas?
Natural gas comes from under ground. It’s used to heat houses and for cooking meals. Propane, meanwhile, comes from oil refining. We use propane in our outdoor gas grills.
Natural gas is lighter than air and easily vents to the atmosphere. Propane is heavier than air which is dangerous if it collects in spaces that aren’t vented.
Since the 1960s, natural gas has been burned in the steam boilers on natural gas cargo ships. In the 1980s, BC Ferries ran two, small gas-powered ferries. Norwegians also have a lot of gas. (Maybe it’s because of the lutefisk… ask someone from Poulsbo). They have been running gas-powered ferries since 2000.
How does it work?
Our gas powered ferry would look like any other ferry since natural gas tanks may be placed below decks. WSF would fuel them (called “bunkering” by the old salts) from a weekly tanker truck. (Only the Jumbo ferries go to the Seattle fuel pier to “bunker.”)
WSF may use either pure gas or dual-fuel natural gas engines. Dual-fuel engines can shift back and forth between diesel and natural gas. Since natural gas engines need a spark plug and diesel engines don’t, the dual-fuel engines use a crafty “chemical sparkplug.” They squirt a bit of diesel into the cylinder along with the gas. When the diesel goes bang, so does the gas.
What’s the plan?
WSF can retrofit some Issaquah ferries to natural gas in the near term or just wait until they can build a 144-car natural gas ferry from the keel up. Retrofitting lets WSF learn lessons from using gas propulsion before redesigning a 144. The biggest obstacle may be the Coast Guard which hasn’t yet written standards for gas ferries.
To them I recommend that time-honored Norwegian axiom: “Kan jeg kopiere eders hjemmelekse?” — “May I copy your homework?