SSA ‘procrastinating’ on ferry electrification

County Commissioner urges board to support an electric fleet.


Dukes County Commissioners took up a request relayed by Commissioner Tristan Israel on behalf of Island climate action advocates to sign a letter supporting ferry electrification. 

Drafted by members of the MVC’s climate task force, the letter asks that the SSA take considerable steps toward a more sustainable future. Specifically, it advocates for electrifying the SSA’s newly obtained boats.

The Steamship bought three new vessels last year, recently named the Aquinnah, Monomoy, and Barnstable. They are meant to replace three of the aging freighters currently in the fleet. 

While the purchase of the Monomoy is still in its contract negotiation phase, the Aquinnah and the Barnstable are expected to become operational next year.

First, they must be converted to accommodate vehicle and passenger travel; that conversion is expected to cost nearly $14 million for each ferry. 

Advocates of ferry electrification say that prior to paying those conversion fees, the SSA ought to consider alternative, and greener, options. 

Since the purchase of the vessels, the SSA has given “a couple of passing references of [electrification], but have given no specifics about it,” Israel said. “Our fear is that these boats will get up and running, and nothing will have happened [in terms of electric conversion].”

The letter of support is to urge the SSA to reconsider their priorities. 

“We’re trying to get the ball rolling,” Israel said.

At a sold-out Ferries Now event held at Tisbury’s Martha’s Vineyard Film Center in March, SSA general manager Robert Davis responded to inquiries about electrifying the boats, and said that finding funding for the electrification would be difficult.

He cited other complications, including the need for interchangeable vessels for the Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket routes, along with shoreside infrastructure requirements. “The question is how do we transition to cleaner technologies,” Davis had said. “It’s a long roadmap to get there.” 

On Wednesday, commission chair Christine Todd, who was at the Ferries Now event, shared her take on the public’s response.

“The frustration in the audience is that we are so far behind in actually planning and implementing plans to get closer to the goal of electrification,” she said. “There was a pretty high level of disappointment that the Steamship Authority had not acted in a much more tangible way up until now.”

Regarding Israel’s request, Todd said the letter serves as a way to “keep that fire burning …that we want this happening, and we want to see motion on it, and we want to see a very clear path drawn toward achieving these goals.”

Commissioners expressed informal support for the electrification of ferries in theory, but also said it’d be useful to meet with the county’s SSA representative, Jim Malkin, and garner more detailed information on the process, including feasibility, cost, and project scheduling. 

“I don’t see why we need to procrastinate,” Israel said, noting that the SSA has long been engaged with regarding electric conversions. “We’ve been asking and asking about this … We can procrastinate until the cows come home.” 

There’s little reason to hold off submitting the commission’s formal support, he said, emphasizing that the DCC doesn’t need approval from the county’s SSA rep to approve the letter. 

Israel said responses from the SSA thus far haven’t been sufficient. When it comes to discussions of potential electric ferries, the SSA has “talked a game,” he said, adding that SSA comments such as “we’re looking into it; it’s going to be very expensive,” just haven’t been sufficient. 

“Well, we know it’s going to be expensive,” he said. “But the longer we wait to look into [electrification] with no strategic planning, it’s just going to get more and more expensive.” 

The commission ultimately decided to hold off on formally approving a written letter, and agreed to first engage SSA representative Malkin in order to discuss the agenda item at their next meeting.


  1. The SSA’s lack of a strategic plan has been a major failing of the organization. Obviously electrification has to be included in such a plan. Converting the ferries to electric power could be accomplished fairly quickly if the money were available. However, the boats have to plug into something to charge their batteries in all the port towns, including the maintenance facility on the mainland.That’s six places where the electrical grid has to be reinforced to support the large charging requirements. That’s a separate and huge project in itself. Regardless of when in the future electric boats become a reality, a concurrent discussion needs to be happening now with the utilities, Eversource and National Grid, since their lead time to provide the needed charging capacity may be much longer than that required for the conversion of boats to electric power. Utilities aren’t known for speedy responses.

    • Mobile, Interchangeable, Battery Pack Modules

      Flexibility for changing times.

      The use of MIBPMs may address several issues mentioned in yesterday’s Ferries Now
      presentation. I’m doubtful the concept hasn’t been considered already but as the particular
      application in the electrification of Vehicle Carrying Ferries uniquely avails itself to the idea,
      I’m taking the time to outline the concept and briefly discuss some of the impacts such a
      system may have on the Vineyard boats.

      What are MIBPMs? These mobile battery packs would provide the battery storage and
      power for the envisioned electrically powered boats. They are moveable, interchangeable
      battery packs which could be easily loaded onto and off the boats, at port, the same as loading
      and unloading any other vehicle. They could be similar in size and stature to a tractor trailer
      or maybe smaller van sized units, a number of which could be towed, made up as a train of
      trailers. This would be similar to the baggage carts at the airport or the one used on the SSA
      boats. Connections would be made up on the ferry as the battery packs park at stations
      onboard. Discharged units would in turn be off loaded and returned to the landside charging
      station. The exchange would take no more time than the current time taken to load and
      unload the vehicles and passengers between trips. The MIBPMs would be charged at a
      nearby facility, but would allow the location of that facility to be weather protected and would
      not be required to be water side. The MIBPMs could be fully charged, tested and maintained
      while the vessels used other MIBPMs to continue their daily travels.

      Why use MIBPMs? The following issues were mentioned by the presenters at yesterday’s
      gathering. This interchangeable module power system will address these but of course, at the
      same time, bring in other considerations which will need to be fleshed out.

      1. PROBLEM: Because charging the batteries during port times, between trips, will not
      keep up with power usage, port based battery banks together with extremely costly rapid
      charging equipment will be needed to allow rapid charging while the ferries are at dock.
      Complicated and expensive, weatherproof, flexible connectors will need to be
      engineered to hook up the ferry to the charging equipment.
      MIBPMS will address these issues by allowing protected charging of the battery packs
      and, depending on the number of units, the time required to fully charge the modules
      could be extended, allowing use of off-peak charging timing and less costly slow
      charging equipment. Simple connectors from the modules to the boats and with the
      charging stations and between the modules could be less costly than the shore to boat
      connectors required because of weather and tide related complications.
      Space at each port for storage of the modules would be required, however, if the units
      were sized to power a round trip, exchange of modules would only be required at or near
      Woods Hole. Could charging units be shared with the shuttle bus fleet? This could be
      the initial plan with facilities at all the ports added, reducing size or number of modules
      carried by the vessels over time.

      2. PROBLEM: Because of the need for flexibility for each vessel to be able to be used
      on longer or shorter routes, all the ferries must be equipped with enough batteries for
      the longer routes even when not using the storage capacity at the cost of carrying the
      extra weight etc. The Nantucket route would require dedicated boats with enough
      built-in batteries unneeded for the Vineyard routes. It was mentioned that the
      boats would need to be towed to the servicing shipyards or longer trips maybe because of
      the necessity of moving to a different service area.
      MIBPMs would allow the addition or subtraction of battery storage as needed to
      allow flexibility in the use and the temporary requirements of the boats.

      3. PROBLEM: Battery life is estimated to be 10 years but is actually unknown and
      new battery technology is currently the driving force in electrification decision
      making. Other unknown and known battery issues are to be expected.
      MIBPMs would allow the most flexibility to adapt the latest and best battery
      systems as they become available. The loss of vessel service required at the
      expected 10 year end of battery life change-over would be eliminated. Battery over
      heating and individual battery cell failure replacement tasks would all be handled
      landside, in controlled conditions, without causing vessel down time.
      I’ll leave it to others to find the negatives. They would need to be evaluated. But obviously, a
      loss of vehicle deck space will result in a loss of revenue for an otherwise fully loaded boat.
      Higher battery/storage costs may be required which will off-set the savings suggested above.
      I have no data on size of the area required on the built-in battery plans presented nor on what
      the MIBPMs would require or the weight of the batteries. The vehicle ferry configuration
      does present a unique opportunity that a passenger only vessel does not. The SSA boats could
      all share in use of the modules, as each requires, giving the designers much flexibility as the
      fleet is converted to electrification over a period of several years.

      Finally, I’d like to share my experience with the electrification of the construction industries’
      equipment. When the first battery powered power drills started showing up on the job site in
      the 1980’s they all were powered with self contained batteries. When the batteries were
      discharged, the tool was useless, plugged in as we waited for the recharging. Shortly,
      removable batteries were used and the tools were often sold with a charger and two batteries.
      Suddenly, the tools were actually useful. While in use using one of the batteries, the other
      battery sat in the charger preparing for use. One could expect continual use of the tool by
      simply changing the battery pack as necessary. If the charger could not keep up, a third
      battery and second charger could be purchased. Now battery powered tools are on every
      jobsite and they are actually useful rather than just novelty.

      • Roger– absolutely excellent comment. Thank you for taking the time to write it. I am all for the electrification of the ferries. One of the main obstacles as I see it is indeed the costly equipment for rapid charging. One thing in particular is the expensive on shore battery packs that would have to placed next to the ferries to facilitate that rapid charge you speak of, and use the current electrical infrastructure. I actually think flywheel energy storage would be a good alternative there, as the flywheel will virtually last forever, and will not blow up if they are submerged by a storm surge.
        But your solution solves that problem right away.

  2. What is Tristan’s best guess as to the increase in cost f going electric?
    The cost of diesel propulsion is well understood

  3. albert
    There are upfront costs and downstream savings.

    I am doubtful that the coast of diesel propulsion is as well understood as you might imagine.
    Certainly the cost of diesel fuel is quite open to wild fluctuations in price,and ultimately supply.
    The steamship uses about 1.5 million gallons of the stuff every year.
    We also don’t really understand the full medical consequences of breathing a known carcinogen every time you are outside on the boat.
    What we do know about diesel propulsion is that it is expensive, noisy, dangerous, and it stinks.
    We can do better. Think of it as an investment.

    • Good investment is based on cost, what is the cost?
      The cost of diesel now is 61 cents more than than it was a decade ago.
      It peaked at $1.20 more a gallon more that the start of the decade.
      The cost of diesel is well understood, the fully burdened long term costs of wind, not so much.
      Dangerous? Think about a battery fire at sea.
      I am an electrical engineer by trade. I know that the future of propulsion is electric. When is a function of cost. The biggest proponents of electric are numbers shy.

  4. Tristan wouldn’t have a clue. Leave it up to the experts to give you answers, then doubt them too.

  5. Bob Davis, the gravity-defying manager of the SSA always avoids any kind of criticism that might make him superlative at house work by the board and yet he comes up short frequently. We pay him over $200K/yr and what do we get? Overpriced, overcrowded ferries, running non-stop, with mechanical breakdowns galore. So sick of the wimpiness and acquittal of the board to this clown.

    • You seem to know how to run a boat line, have you submitted your resume of consideration?

      But you don’t know that our ferries are never overcrowded. The Coast Guard would shut them down in the blink of an eye, but you knew that.

      What percentage of an operations gross income should a CEO be paid?

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