Nov 1, 2023 - Energy & Environment

How the country's largest ferry system is going green

Illustration of a grid model of a ferry on the water, with colored shapes around it.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

The country's biggest ferry system is going electric in what local officials hope is an early step toward decarbonizing the broader maritime industry.

What's happening: Washington State Ferries — the largest U.S. ferry system by ridership, carrying more than 17 million people last year and about 24 million annually pre-pandemic — is working to shift to a zero-emissions fleet by 2050.

  • "We are leading America in this revolution," Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said in September at a meeting to discuss the initiative's progress.

Driving the news: Work began about two months ago to convert the first of Washington's ferries to hybrid-electric power, with two more conversions planned through 2025.

  • The retrofitted ferries will be able to operate on battery-electric power much of the time.
  • Once the state starts adding electric charging stations to its terminals in 2026, these ferries will be able to operate "in full battery-only mode," program administrator Matt von Ruden said.

Why it matters: In Washington state and nationwide, the transportation sector is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions, which drive climate change.

  • Electrifying ferries — and eventually, commercial shipping — is an essential step toward reducing the country's carbon footprint, state officials say.
  • Washington's ferry system is the biggest polluter among the state's agencies, producing roughly 180,000 metric tons of emissions in 2019 and consuming about 19 million gallons of diesel fuel per year.

What's next: The agency plans to electrify eight of its 10 ferry routes over the next 14 years, which requires building 16 new hybrid-electric ferries.

  • The system's first fully electric ferry is expected to be online in 2027, connecting Seattle and Bainbridge Island.

Yes, but: Electrifying the ferry fleet is projected to cost about $4 billion.

  • Washington has so far pieced together about $1.3 billion from state and federal sources, as well as grants.
  • "We know we may face obstacles, but we are going to get there," says Amy Scarton, deputy secretary of the Washington State Department of Transportation.

The big picture: Other efforts are underway to reduce boat emissions in the Pacific Northwest.

  • The Port of Seattle has been installing shore power systems for cruise ships, for instance, allowing the giant vessels to connect to electricity and turn off diesel engines while in port.

Plus: A new Pacific Northwest hydrogen hub — funded by $1 billion from the 2021 federal infrastructure law — could help develop cleaner fuels to replace the dirty bunker fuel typically used in commercial shipping.

Go deeper: Seattle is emerging as Fusiontown, U.S.A.

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