On Friday, the Massachusetts House of Representatives passed a climate package to put the commonwealth on track to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, including an amendment made by State Rep. Dylan Fernandes, D-Falmouth, to study the feasibility of electrifying ferry fleets.
The amendment to An Act creating a 2050 roadmap to a clean and thriving Commonwealth, H. 4912, calls for the Department of Energy Resources (DOER) to conduct a feasibility study of Massachusetts ferry operators to convert ferries to electric and hybrid electric by 2050. There is no mandate attached to the amendment, but the study would look at the technology needed for a transition, the availability of such technology, the costs for making the transition, the feasibility of making the transition, availability of programs to support the transition, and study the operations of electric ferries in service in Europe and other parts of the world.
“We know everything in the climate literature indicates we need to get to net zero, preferably 100 percent renewable, by 2050. While there has been significant movement around electrification of cars, buses, and trains, ferries, at least in Massachusetts, haven’t made any real, meaningful commitment toward electrifying their fleets,” Fernandes said. “This amendment was important to, one, just start this conversation, and two, to lay down a framework for ferry systems in Massachusetts to start transitioning to battery-powered.”
The bill would also create a clean energy jobs program, mandate 3,600 megawatts of offshore wind, and create a 2050 roadmap plan to be updated every five years.
“There are definitely models out there that have proven that this works. Washington State, the largest ferry system in the Un.S., has made some commitments to transitioning to electric, and I really think it’s beyond time to get that conversation moving in Massachusetts,” Fernandes said.
The Martha’s Vineyard Commission’s Climate Action Task Force has floated a more ambitious goal of reducing fossil fuel use on the Island by 50 percent by 2030 and 100 percent by 2040, while simultaneously altering the electricity supply to be 50 percent clean by 2030, and 100 percent renewable by 2040.
Part of the goal has been establishing an energy baseline for the Island, and the SSA was an important factor to take into the Island’s account.
“That piece, specifically for the ferries, is really good news,” task force member Ben Robinson told The Times about the bill. “There’s really important things that need to be figured out … It’s just one small piece to a big, big puzzle.”
Robinson stressed the urgency of the work, and the need to figure out logistics such as how an electric ferry would be charged, and where infrastructure would be built.
“These are big, monumental changes that have to happen, and it’s all uncharted waters. The more people that are working on it, the more people that are thinking about it, the more people that are supporting these things, they all add up.”
Electric ferries have come up before, at a Steamship Authority meeting last year, when Aquinnah resident Noli Taylor and high school climate activist Emily Gazzaniga pressed SSA officials to make the switch.
While he hadn’t read Fernandes’ amendment, SSA chairman Jim Malkin told The Times by phone Monday that alternative energy sources are important for the world, the country, and the Cape and Islands region.
“I think that electric energy has a lot of potential. I look forward to seeing it work effectively in ferry services of the type that we require,” Malkin said. “As the [SSA] moves through the process of upgrading its fleet over the years, electric energy types of vessels certainly need to be rigorously looked at.”
The bill was approved by the House on a 142-17 vote, and is now likely headed to a conference committee, a group of senators and representatives who work together on legislation. The Senate passed a bill, S.2500, with similar language, by a 36-2 vote. If signed into law, DOER would submit a report to the legislature by July 1, 2021.
“In the face of climate disruption, we must be looking to every avenue to reduce emissions in everyday life,” State Senator Julian Cyr, D-Truro, said in an email to The Times. “This feasibility study builds on previous legislative work passed by the Senate in January, and is among the first steps we can take to ensure that the transition to carbon reduction is equitable and lends due consideration to those who make a life ferrying visitors and residents to Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard.”