Vessel electrification has sparked more than a general interest within the U.S. marine industry. A current of energy is flowing as this technology develops and emerges in our fleets. Elliott Bay Design Group's Chief Electrical Engineer Will Ayers discussed the topic with Christina Villiott, EBDG's vice president of marketing and sales.

In 2018, EBDG invested in the education and understanding of the marine application of electrification by sending Ayers to Scandinavia twice. In just over two months, he observed the operation of European hybrid and electric ferries and had the opportunity to ride on several ferries. 

Villiott: The hybridization and electrification of vessels is becoming more prevalent in our industry, what were the overall goals for your trips?

Ayers: Initially, I traveled through Scandinavia with the goal of visiting 13 hybrid or all-electric vessels in seven days. I am dedicated to learning more about these technologies, their potential applications for U.S. operators and how EBDG can support the transition. It was important for me to see the variety of applications so that I can share my observations with operators that are considering electrification projects. My second visit was part of Maritime Blue, which seeks to advance Washington state’s maritime economy with one goal being the possible hybridization of their ferry system. I wanted to share lessons learned from my first trip with the group from Washington state as well as learn from them. Both trips had fascinating stops that enabled me to see some very advanced ships.

Villiott: You kicked off your first visit by attending the Electric & Hybrid Marine World Expo in Amsterdam, you then undertook a vessel tour with Scandlines.

Ayers: Yes, I sailed from Germany to Denmark with Scandlines who owns and operates the six largest hybrid ferries in the world. Senior managers with deck plate experience gave me an excellent tour aboard MV Prinsesse Benedikte. I saw 4.8 MW gensets, 1.6 MWh of lithium-ion batteries, 3 MW Z-drives and extensive exhaust scrubbing systems. This installation was customized and optimized specifically for their operation.

Will Ayers in the battery room onboard a hybrid ferry. EBDG photo

Will Ayers in the battery room onboard a hybrid ferry. EBDG photo

Villiott: What do we need to know about this?

Ayers: Well, the bottom line was they are saving 40% on fuel with some massive machinery. Their customization included operational changes as well, but hybridizing was key. Their ferries can lose all diesel generators and still come to a stop. This gives the crew confidence to shut down to one generator.

Villiott: From Denmark to Sweden, I understand you rode with HH Ferries and toured the MF Tycho Brahe. This vessel and her sister vessel MF Aurora are the largest all-electric vessels in the world. What were take-aways from this visit?

Ayers: This was an impressive installation. ABB factory robots are stationed in towers at the edge of each dock that charge the ferries at 10,000 volts and in as fast as six minutes. Each ship has 4.2 MWh of lithium-ion battery cells. The battery cells come from Xalt out of Michigan, packaged by the Canadian firm, PBES.

Villiott: So, the U.S. has some skin in the game.  I think this will be of particular interest for operators who receive federal funding.

Ayers: Yes, and there are others in the U.S. involved. Let's not forget that John Goodenough, the inventor of the original lithium-ion battery, is still leading research at the University of Texas. He led teams that later developed the iron phosphate chemistry as used by Saft in marine lithium-ion. The NMC lithium-ion chemistry that now dominates marine, as used by Xalt, Siemens, Corvus Energy and Spear Power Systems, was invented at Argonne National Laboratories near Chicago. Spear out of Missouri along with ATS out of Florida and Cochran Marine out of Seattle are the plug-in propulsion experts behind the U.S.’s first electric vehicle ferry, the Gees Bend ferry in Alabama.

Villiott: What can you share with us from your visits with Volvo Penta, Corvus, Siemens, Rolls Royce and others?

Ayers: These visits were great. Volvo Penta is making a strategic shift into electromobility. Diesel engines will likely be part of ship designs for many more years, even the two "all-electrics" at HH Ferries retained their original diesel engines. Those diesel engines, though, will be under increasing pressure to integrate with aftertreatment, dual-fuel and battery energy storage systems. And at least for short-haul vessels such as at HH Ferries, batteries can now all but eliminate the consumption of fossil fuel. Volvo Penta believes this trend will continue. I was thrilled to tour Siemens' roboticized factory, building their state-of-the-art water-cooled battery racks.  They also shared their novel and innovative power conversion designs improving a DC grid and its interface with shoreside AC. With Corvus Energy, we toured the Husavik. While currently operating in hybrid mode, this ferry will soon be making trips entirely with electricity charged from shore.  The vessel has 1.6 MWh of advanced batteries onboard. At Rolls Royce, I saw impressive propulsive technology. This included permanent magnet azimuthing drives where the motor is essentially incased in the outer rim surrounding the propeller. With both suppliers and vessel operators, I was able to climb into machinery spaces to see systems up close and personal.

Shoreside recharging station at a Norwegian ferry terminal. EBDG photo

Shoreside recharging station at a Norwegian ferry terminal. EBDG photo

Villiott: What were your takeaways from Norway’s electric vessels? We’ve heard a lot about the Ampere, what else can you share with us?

Ayers: Yes, the first trip had me driving across the Lavik-Oppedal route on the Ampere, the first all-electric ferry in the world (entered service in 2015). Hours later, I was crossing Anda-Lote, boarding both Eisenfjord and Gloppefjord. The pair had just been put into operation, making the route the first all-electric one. The most impressive aspect was the rapid advancement in the shore power connection component. Ampere had two pilot systems that were only semi-automatic. At Anda-Lote, the newer Stemmann system has a robotic arm and plug that targets the ship-side receptacle. I saw a large number of flawless connections made at Anda-Lote even with fairly high winds and vessel motions involved.

Villiott: So, on your second trip with the Washington state delegation representing Maritime Blue, what were your takeaways with regard to the Blue’s cluster initiative?

Ayers: The best example was our visit to the NMK Center in Alesund. The center was located across the street from marine vocational schools built next to the leading university NTNU. We saw middle schoolers engaging with the center's interactive technology exhibits and saw future navigators training on virtual reality bridges. In the same building, offshore oil and gas majors simulated complex operations with their crew before the real operations. In Trondheim, young hopeful entrepreneurs in their late 20s gave us their pitch at the FAKTRY Innovation Labs. Finally, marine PhD candidates of a similar age explained how access to advanced test labs at SINTEF enabled their marine research. We also visited offshore oil and gas operators committed to reducing emissions. We met with policymakers, transportation agencies and innovation clusters hoping to drive further efforts. All the visits helped visualize a template for greater communication and innovation within our own marine community.

Villiott: What’s the good news for the U.S.?

Ayers: The good news for operators in the U.S. is that such technologies are advancing quickly, challenges being overcome, and costs are coming down. The bad news may be that Norwegian and, more generally, European companies, may gain even further advantage over U.S. companies that offer such technology.  Fortunately, the vessel electrification efforts in some states such as Washington may allow U.S. companies to better participate. In fact, the (WSF) Jumbo Mark II vessel electrification project would allow the U.S. to leap into the field with the largest plug-in hybrid ferries in the world.