Regional authorities push for ferry electrification

Petition calls for the next ferry purchased by the Steamship to be electric.

Steamship Authority general manager Robert Davis sharing what the SSA is planning for electrification during the "Ferries Now" conference in April. — Eunki Seonwoo

Calls to add an electric ferry to the Steamship Authority fleet intensified this past week.

Three regional bodies — the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, Dukes County Commissioners, and the Vineyard Sustainable Energy Committee — all signed similar letters to the Steamship asking the ferry line to at least plan to make the switch to electric.

The letters, all signed and submitted last week, make two specific requests: that as two newly purchased freight vessels undergo renovations, the scope of work include a configuration of hybrid-electric for the vessel’s future. 

The letters also push the Steamship to include a commitment to pursue electrifying its fleet as part of its strategic plan. The transportation agency is working with a consultant to make a plan, which includes gathering public feedback and gathering board members for workshops.

The letters are addressed to Steamship General Manager Bob Davis as well as the Steamship Authority (SSA) board.

“We are confident that the SSA recognizes and understands the Island’s climate action goals

formalized by all six towns in 2022, the requirements of the Massachusetts Global Warming

Solutions Act, and the follow-on climate bill signed by Gov. Baker in 2021,” the letters all state. “We trust that the SSA will be a strong partner in the efforts the Island community is making to achieve our vision of a resilient, 100 percent renewable Martha’s Vineyard.”

The state has a goal to achieve net zero gas emissions by 2050, while Martha’s Vineyard towns have pledged to reduce fossil fuel use by 100 percent by 2040. 

All three letters also mentioned a summit hosted earlier this year by the Martha’s Vineyard Commission to explore ferry electrification, called Ferries Now.

“Based on the attendance in person and virtually, the Vineyard community is clearly very interested in the electrification opportunities that ferry operators both in the U.S. and Europe are currently implementing,” the letters state. “As you are likely aware, since the Steamship Authority is the source of almost 10 percent of our greenhouse gas emissions, this meeting directly addressed a key element of the Island’s climate action goals.”

A Steamship spokesperson said that they have received the letters, but have not responded yet. In the past, officials have said that it will be difficult for the ferry line to access funding for the conversion to electric; there are also concerns about electrical infrastructure handling the charging of batteries.

In addition to the three letters, Kate Warner, energy planner with the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, says that a petition with more than 350 signatures was signed at Earth Day and Climate Day. The petition asks, among other things, that when the Steamship purchases a new vessel, it is electric.


  1. Here is a most important issue that all SSA communities should be able to agree on. Environmentally the current fleet is a disgrace. These ships arrive or depart Woods Hole every 25-20 minutes in the summer when our more dependable southwest wind blows the soot over our village. It’s doing the same to the islands.
    The $50+ million designated for the already obsolete ticket building must be redirected to a clean fleet.

  2. Electrification is vital, but these petitioners fail to grasp understand that hybrid diesel/electric ferries don’t really help with climate impacts, beyond permitting the boats to stop polluting while in port. Retrofitting old freight boats as hybrids would be a waste of capital resources. 100% battery/electric is the way to go and is most worthwhile on new builds. Unfortunately the current regime at the SSA has their heads in the sand and aren’t moving in this direction at all.

    • Maybe I got this wrong, and by “hybrid” they are thinking a system with enough battery to avoid using the diesel most of the time. That’s what Washington State Ferries is mostly doing, with the diesel generators intended to be used only in unusual circumstances. I’d call that an electric ferry with diesel backup rather than hybrid, but I am probably out of step. In any event retrofitting the old freight boats that are halfway through their useful lives already probably isn’t a good investment.

  3. We demand that the next ferry be electric.
    We don’t care how much it costs.
    We don’t care how reliable it is.
    We don’t care how long the batteries last.
    We love to mix salt water and electricity.

  4. I’m not going to call anyone any names, but to not quickly move towards electrification, or at least putting the infrastructure for that inevitable reality in place reminds me of a famous line in the movie Forrest Gump — and it’s not the one about the box of chocolates.

  5. Why not a hovercraft for passengers only ?
    If they can do it between Denmark , Sweden and Norway why not back and forth to the Vineyard?
    Ferries aside, if the times took a poll today on keeping the temporary terminal in Woods Hole or spending 50 million on a new one, which question would be more popular?
    The Steamship needs cost cutting and common sense accounting more than ever.

    • Eruic– a hovercraft would be nice, but I don’t think there is a need for it.
      It’s pretty rare that the boat is over capacity for passengers. Yes, the travel time might be reduced, but other factors make the actual travel time nearly negligible. The expense of building the infrastructure and the hovercraft itself would unlikely be able to attract private financing. it would also reduce revenue to the steamship.
      I agree, tearing down the existing facility in Woods hole to build a $50 MILLION dollar terminal is about one of the dumbest things I have ever heard of.

  6. There are several elephants in the room about ferry elecrification, but the most obvious one is the lack of infrastructure to charge the batteries. And using diesel generators make a joke about calling it ‘electrification’. There are six locations that need electrical charging infrastructure – three on the mainland, and three on the Islands – Vineyard Haven; Oak Bluffs, Nantucket, Hyannis, Woods Hole, and the New Bedford maintenance facility. Who within the SSA is working with Eversource and National Grid to make this happen. It takes years for utilities to respond to changes like these. They are notoriously sluggish to build infrastructure. If the SSA is in any way serious about electrification, which I doubt, it has to commit resources to lobbying the utilities to get this done. I’m not holding my breath.

  7. 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.

    • Roger– You got it.
      In my opinion, the MIBPMs option is brilliant.
      The weight of the battery pack for the Ampre– a fully electric ferry that can take 120 cars and 360 passengers is 10 tons for it’s 3.5 mile run.
      I am amazed , but i cannot find how big that would actually be,
      In our case,we could have one mobile pack on each side of the ferry– drive on, plug in , drive off to recharging station.
      Keep it simple—
      Thanks, it really gives me something to think about.

  8. electric ferries is an unrealistic obsolete idea being pushed by a county commissioner who thought he was an architectural genius only to find out the cheaper school he wanted to build cost 50 million more. now he wants to give marine engineering a go, please don’t listen the PC crowd. look ahead, read marine journals. think hydrogen, still uses the well understood internal combustion engine with a liquid fuel. That’s simple.
    Another thought to consider, if an electric car catches fire on the boat, and yes the do on occasion catch fire on their own. How do you put the fire out? If you don’t have a really good answer to that question perhaps filling the boat with lithium batteries is a really bad idea.

  9. Roger– for anything to catch on, it needs a catchy name. MIBPM is the industry term I am sure, but for our discussions on this subject, I propose calling them MIBUs
    Mobile Interchangeable Battery Units.
    It would be much easier to speak about them in a public forum, and it would be easier for regular people to talk about them amongst themselves while debating the pros and cons.
    I notice that so far, no one has come up with any negatives.
    Perhaps Hess can chime in here– he can come up with a negative for anything.
    I will be more than happy to listen to what he says.

    This is how our language evolves.

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