Washington’s ferries are going electric

Electric cars have changed how we drive, electricity will change how we cross the Sound 

By Morf Morford
Tacoma Daily Index

Washington State Ferries operates the most extensive ferry system in the continental United States and the second largest in the world by vehicles carried (1*), with ten routes on Puget Sound and the Strait of Juan de Fuca serving passengers from terminals around Puget Sound (in Washington state) and Vancouver Island (Sidney, BC).

In 2016, Washington State Ferries carried a total of 10.5 million vehicles and 24.2 million riders.

To put it mildly, running a ferry system on this scale is expensive – and a major source of pollution.

Just three ferries, the Tacoma, Wenatchee, and Puyallup, are the largest in the Washington state fleet and the biggest emitters of greenhouse gas emissions. These three vessels combined burn over 4 million gallons of fuel per year — more than 26% of the fleet’s consumption.

You don’t need to be an expert to see how popular – and essential – cross-Sound traffic has become.

Photo by Morf Morford

Photo by Morf Morford

If you have been on a ferry, one striking feature is how old most of the boats are – another is how loud and dirty they are – frequent ferry riders learn quickly where they should sit to avoid the fumes and roar of the massive diesel engines.

WSDOT (our ferry system is operated by Washington State Department of Transportation) is well aware of this and has been planning for new ferries for a long time.  (2*)

One aspect of the future of ferries in Washington is that we can expect one new ferry each year to replace our rapidly aging fleet. And, taking a cue from the Norwegian ferry system, another aspect is that our ferries, from now on, will be either hybrid or fully electric.  (3*)

It might be just a coincidence, or a case of cosmic destiny, but one of the first existing ferries to be converted will be the Tacoma - which currently runs in and out of Seattle.

Conversion is expensive of course, about $30 million per vessel, but thanks to the settlement agreement with the federal government, Volkswagen set up a $2.7 billion mitigation trust fund to offset the environmental impact of diesel-powered vehicles it sold in the U.S. with non-compliant emissions controls.

Besides the initial set-up and conversion costs, the savings in fuel expenditures should allow the new system to pay for itself.

Ferries are not the only big boats shifting to electric.

Maersk, the world’s largest container shipping company, ships one out of every five containers worldwide (121 countries and 343 ports of call) and up until recently had a footprint of about 600,000 barrels of oil a day.

Shipping is how 80% of the world’s trade is moved and Maersk is convinced that it can be – and should be – shipped in a carbon neutral way. Maersk has invested over a billion dollars and dedicated more than fifty engineers to ensure that they will be emission-free by 2050.

With a fleet as large as theirs, and a vehicle life-cycle of 20-25 years, implementation needs to begin immediately.

Maersk expects to have carbon neutral vessels commercially viable by 2030 and is working to accelerate new innovations and adopt new technology towards those benchmarks.

Ready or not, when it comes to shipping, electric is the future.

Fossil fuels, for many reasons, from erratic and unreliable supply lines, to roller-coasting prices and dubious (at best) geopolitical complications, and in some circles at least, environmental considerations, have outlived their usefulness.

Mt Rainier reminds us of what we have - and what is at stake. Photo: Morf Morford

Mt Rainier reminds us of what we have – and what is at stake. Photo: Morf Morford

To put it simply, fossil fuels are so 20th Century.

Future generations will marvel at our love of a fuel so filthy in production, dangerous, if not explosive in storage and transport and rife with political complications and compromises.

Oil exploration and drilling in our national parks, and off our shores is expense, destructive and, virtually always leaves a trail of toxic waste, yet somehow fossil fuel extraction continues – or even expands – in spite of prevailing market forces – even through fragile ecosystems and legally protected tribal lands.

The price at the pump and the wholesale price for oil is at record lows, but one has to wonder whether the cost – in long term expenses, political compromise or historic damage to irreplaceable sites could ever be worth it.

LNG, and fossil fuels in general, are vulnerable to market shifts, supply line bottlenecks and political instability like few other energy sources.  (4*)

If you question the necessity, if not urgency, of shifting to electric, from cars to container ships, ask anyone under 40.


(1*)   By far the largest commuter ferry system in the world is in Istanbul, Turkey, which has 87 vessels serving 86 ports of call. BC Ferries in British Columbia operates 36 vessels, visiting 47 ports of call, while Washington State Ferries runs 28 vessels, serving 20 ports of call around Puget Sound.

(2*)   You can see the details on WSDOT’s plan for ferries of the future here – https://www.nwpb.org/2019/01/07/washington-state-ferries-unveils-plan-for-younger-greener-and-little-larger-fleet-by-2040/

(3*)   https://www.maritime-executive.com/article/norway-s-experience-helps-seattle-ferries-go-electric or https://www.workboat.com/news/passenger-vessels/study-backs-shift-wsf-ferries-hydro-electric-power/

(4*)   Even industry journals recognize these facts – https://www.rigzone.com/news/five_lng_trends_to_watch_in_2019-10-jan-2019-157888-article/