The Steamship Authority (SSA) is conducting a feasibility study to examine the existing 10-boat fleet, and what it might take to start switching over to electric ferries in the future.
According to a 2018 report, the SSA consumed 1.29 million gallons of diesel on the Vineyard route alone. Implementing hybrid or all-electric ferries would cut that down significantly, and would reduce the overall consumption of fossil fuels for the Island.
SSA spokesman Sean Driscoll said they are investigating model examples of ferry services that have already implemented electric or hybrid electric vessels, and determining when it might be a good opportunity to start down this path.
He noted that Washington State is in the process of shifting over to hybrid electric ferries, but that service is funded by the state government, whereas the SSA does not receive government money. “That doesn’t mean we are any less committed to examining this process,” Driscoll said.
The SSA funds its ferries through bonds that are repaid by the authority’s farebox collection.
And in order to ensure they make the most informed decisions possible, Driscoll said, the SSA is waiting to see how other entities implement their electric ferries. “It’s something we are certainly looking at, but we don’t necessarily want to be the first out of the gate,” Driscoll said. “We are going to be looking to see what other operators are doing, and what lessons they learn.”
Incorporating electric ferries is no small feat, and Driscoll said the SSA is currently “in the conceptual stage of the conceptual stage.”
“There are still a lot of questions between us and that goal,” he said.
He added that the SSA has ordered its first three electric buses, which is a good first step toward electrification.
Ben Robinson, a member of the Martha’s Vineyard Commission and of the commission-established Climate Action Task Force (CATF), said each SSA ferry lasts about 50 years. With the authority planning for a new boat, the task force is working with them to do a feasibility study to see what it would take, and what an electric fleet might look like.
Although the transition will take time, Robinson said, the good news is that converting a ferry to electric or hybrid electric “isn’t all that complicated.” He said a lot of the core components involved in electrification are similar to how electric trains are powered. “It’s not new technology, it’s not unexplored technology, but it’s really about finding the right thing that fits the needs of the SSA,” Robinson said.
Certain companies sell packages with modules and batteries for the electric conversion, depending on the kind of ferry you are powering. In adding new electric systems to the boats, Robinson said, it becomes necessary to remove the fuel load and redo some of the naval architecture associated with storing batteries, and integrating that electricity into the onboard power systems.
In looking at electrification, the SSA could choose to either retrofit existing ferries, or construct brand-new vessels.
The SSA and the task force are referring to feasibility studies conducted by other entities that have started down the electrification path, such as Casco Bay Lines in Maine, and Washington State Ferries.
Casco Bay Lines, which services Casco Bay from Portland, decided to go with a hybrid electric ferry, which uses a diesel generator combined with an electric propulsion system.
Robinson said that overall, electricity is significantly less expensive than diesel, and if the SSA chooses to generate electricity locally through a solar installation over one of their large parking lots, that could create even more savings.
He added that there are ways to optimize cost and savings by charging batteries during low peak times, when electricity is cheapest, then offloading that energy into the grid.
Another major element to electric ferries is reduced maintenance, according to Robinson.
“The electric systems are a lot easier to maintain. There are lots of cost savings long-term to it, without even talking about the amount of carbon you are taking out of the system,” he said.
And with increased numbers of high-wind events and more turbulent weather being two results of climate change, Robinson said, it may behoove the SSA to begin considering windage on vessels, and how to design boats that can handle a higher wind load, so there are fewer cancellations.
The main barrier to revamping the SSA ferry fleet is cost. With a significant upfront capital expense related to shifting to electric ferries, the SSA is looking at alternative funding sources in order to avoid rate hikes.
“The electric ferries themselves are a little more expensive;, you need to retrain your staff to use the electric systems, and there are shoreside facilities that would have to be built that wouldn’t be necessary with a traditional ferry,” Robinson said.
Because the SSA is a quasi-independent authority, they do not normally receive government funding.
With this, Robinson said, questions remain as to whether the SSA would have to raise its bonding limit, and where the extra funds to meet that limit would come from. “Would they come out of the farebox, like they normally do? That means they would have to raise the rates on everyone, which is a problem, because there is going to be pushback on that,” Robinson said. “Even for people that want to see things go electric.”
Robinson said the SSA and the CATF have been exploring other funding options, especially if there is a large federal infrastructure bill. “Unfortunately, in our early conversations with [Congressman] Keating’s office, because of the nature of the SSA, it’s stuck in this weird gray area where there is really no existing funding mechanism,” Robinson said.
Because the Island is a tourist economy, it’s essential to attract visitors whenever possible, Robinson said. If the ferry can implement electric ferries, he said, that will serve as a “selling point” that will illustrate how the Island is working toward a greener future.
“It’s not hyperbolic to say that we have to change everything,” Robinson said. “In saying that, there is no reason to make all this change happen in one day, and you don’t have to do it haphazardly.”
In the next two decades, Robinson said, the SSA (and the rest of the Island) will work toward greener ways of doing business, in servicing the community and its visitors. “It’s going to be a burden on people — it’s not easy to change, and it’s not something we would naturally choose to do, but the times have chosen that for us,” he said.