First all-electric ferry in U.S. reaches milestone

The first zero-emission, all-electric passenger/vehicle ferry in the U.S. marked its first anniversary this spring after a conversion that cleared a few hurdles.

Alabama’s Gee’s Bend Ferry completed its annual COI, “and that was very successful. The vessel has worked as envisioned and is doing it safely,” said Tim Aguirre, general manager, HMS Ferries Inc., which operates the ferry for the Alabama Department of Transportation. “We knew there would be challenges with it.”

Among them was the rural location, which meant the electrical infrastructure had to be improved. “If you’re going to have a speedy charge, they have to have a more robust infrastructure,” he said.

The 95’x42’x5’, 15-vehicle/132-passenger ferry makes five round trips daily across the Alabama River between Gee’s Bend and Camden. While charging stations are on both sides of the river, the boat was designed so it could charge on just one side. “We have more margin than we could have hoped for,” Aguirre said. Charging takes 20-25 minutes on one side or 10-15 minutes on both sides.

Another challenge was the Coast Guard’s lack of regulations for lithium-ion battery-powered Subchapter T vessels.

“We brought the Coast Guard in right at the beginning,” Aguirre said. Naval architects “Glosten did an outstanding job of submitting all of the plans early on. There was a fair amount of give and take.”

Glosten sent the Coast Guard their basic design and what they intended to do, and the agency sent a reply with its expectations for an equivalent level of safety, said Sean Caughlan, senior marine engineer at the Seattle firm.

Citing increased interest in battery and other new types of stored energy technology, the Coast Guard last October issued design guidance for lithium-ion battery installation on commercial vessels. Recommendations include providing step-by-step instructions for the crew in case of a battery fire or threat to the battery compartment.

“From a design point of view, one of the first challenges we had was how big to make the batteries,” Caughlan said. What’s an appropriate lifetime for batteries on a battery-powered vessel? To get a 20-year life, for example, “You’d have to make the batteries much larger than you need.”

They settled on a 10-year life and others are now considering a four-year life. “You would never make that choice of an engine that only lasts four years,” he said. “Now that the vessel’s operating, I think we got it right.”

The batteries are air cooled, and because they’re in an enclosed space, the only way to get the heat out is to air condition it. Thus, they had to install a unit to cool the space.

The $1.8 million project was funded in part with a $1.09 million Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Diesel Emissions Reduction Act (DERA) grant. The state kicked in the rest.

The conversion at Master Marine Inc., Bayou La Batre, Ala., involved removing four 125-hp John Deere engines from the vessel, which was built in 2004. Replacement equipment included new propulsion motors, new gears and two Spear battery banks (135-kWh each). For the fire suppression system, each battery space is serviced by 3M Novec 1230 fire protection fluid.

Operating costs were expected to be about 50% less because fuel would be replaced with cheaper electricity for the charging stations. The world’s first zero-emission ferry, the MF Ampere operated by Norway’s Norled AS, entered service in 2015. Fuel costs were cut by almost 80%, an executive told WorkBoat when the Alabama project was getting underway a few years ago.

Because of the recent energy cost drop, it’s going to take a little longer to recoup the savings for this green initiative.

But, Aguirre said, “We can honestly say it’s a zero-emission vessel.”

About the author

Dale K. DuPont

Dale DuPont has been a correspondent for WorkBoat since 1998. She has worked at daily and weekly newspapers in Texas, Maryland, and most recently as a business writer and editor at The Miami Herald, covering the cruise, marine and other industries. She and her husband once owned a weekly newspaper in Cooperstown, N.Y., across the alley from the Baseball Hall of Fame. A South Florida resident, she enjoys sailing on Biscayne Bay, except in hurricane season.

5 Comments

  1. Avatar

    How much does the electricity cost to charge the batteries every trip? Is the power plant that supplies the electricity a coal fired plant? How much did improving the electrical infrastructure cost? How many more years did the existing engines have before overhaul , and how many more years before needing replacement. How much fuel were the existing engines burning? With all the added expenses, without subsidies, would it be economically feasible to build another ferry of the same size for another location?

    • Avatar
      Sean Caughlan on

      These are all really important questions Todd. These were all asked and answered (as much as possible) during the feasibility study in 2017. Shore infrastructure is an often overlooked expense of plug-in vessels, and must be figured into program costs. The short answer on the economic feasibility is ‘it depends’. Technical feasibility and economic feasibility are often closely related. As a rule of thumb we have found that shore power is about 1/3 the cost of fuel, and electric machines and batteries cost a fraction to maintain so there is definitely an operational savings. However, the capital cost of the project must be figured in to evaluate lifecycle costs. Each operation is unique. A big part of what we do is evaluate the complex economics before a client undertakes a big project like this. The environmental benefits are another complex issue that we evaluate. There have been some interesting studies done on the benefits of electric vehicles vs. internal combustion, with consideration for the energy sources. It is my understanding that the Gees Bend Ferry is powered primarily by hydroelectric (there is a hydroelectric dam only a few miles downstream).

  2. Avatar

    Great news and congratulations to the engineering professionals at Glosten for another outstanding design as well as HMS Ferries for moving forward on this exciting project.

  3. Avatar
    Michael Raftery on

    The Glosten and USCG teams did a great job. As all industries, the cost will come down to sustainable levels when the supply chain is established.

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