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The Cutting Edge of Transportation Electrification: Electric Ferries

Updated: Sep 10, 2021

Yes, you heard that right. You may have “missed the boat” on electric ferries as I had until recently, but this is one area of electrification that has taken off, especially in Norway. Norway has the 8th longest coast in the world and thousands of inlets, so ferries are important in connecting residents along its 15,600-mile coastline. By 2030, the country plans to have two-thirds of the boats that carry passengers and cars to be electric.

Outside of Norway, the Denmark-Sweden connector from Copenhagen is also running an EV ferry conversion shown in this impressive video. Europe is often ahead of the United States when it comes to clean energy adoption, so it's not surprising that electric ferries got their start there.

Why Ferry Electrification?

What makes ferries attractive for electrification? First, they cover the same route over and over again so it makes the planning and charging much easier than if the route varied day in and day out. It is easy to calculate the distance the ship is going to cover over its lifetime, and the trips are short with adequate time between trips for recharging. Secondly, ferries are one of the largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions for state transportation so meeting clean energy goals for a coastal state may mean looking at ferries.

State and City Progress

The state of Washington is the United States’ largest ferry fleet with a total of 23 ferries. Governor Inslee launched the Washington Maritime Blue 2050 initiative with the goal of becoming the nation’s most sustainable maritime industry by 2050. The state recently finalized its Volkswagen Beneficiary Mitigation Plan and their ferry electrification project will receive about $117 million in support that will go toward building five new electric ferries.

The City of Seattle is part of the ferry electrification pilot and the work may well inspire other cities to follow suit. The San Francisco Bay Area recently unveiled its first plug-in hybrid ferry, a move that will likely be followed by further efforts to upgrade its fleet. The Staten Island ferries in New York and ferries between Long Island and Connecticut could also be candidates for electrification.

The state of Maine aspires to have a fleet of all-electric ferries. Their ferry service connects the mainland with six island communities: Frenchboro, Islesboro, Matinicus, North Haven, Swan’s Island, and Vinalhaven. The service operates seven vessels, including two ferries built in 1959 and 1960. The service has not launched a new vessel since 2012. Maine State Ferry Service will put out new bids this fall which will include specifications for a diesel-electric hybrid system with an onboard stored power battery system.

North Carolina has the second largest state-owned ferry system in the country behind the state of Washington. Anyone that has traveled around the Outer Banks knows that ferries run from 5 miles all the way up to 25 miles depending on the route. As the picture below shows, there are seven routes that run: Currituck, Hatteras, Ocracoke, (Swan Quarter, Cedar Island,) Bayview, Minnesott Beach and Southport. The ferry vessels operate over 200 daily trips, and transport more than 1.1 million vehicles and 2.5 million passengers annually (those numbers have declined due to the coronavirus but during regular schedules these numbers hold true).

North Carolina should look at ferries for electrification. The ferries themselves range in age from 3 years to 44 years so as they are looking to be replaced, we ask ourselves, why not be on the cutting edge of technology?

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