BC Ferries’ new hybrid electric vessels are just the start of a major electrification campaign

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In an exclusive interview, BC Ferries CEO Mark Collins describes his plan to convert at least half of the operator’s 36-vessel fleet to electricity, updates his case for government support and reflects the disappointing lack of interest from Canadian shipyards.

In mid-August, BC Ferries’ last electric hybrid vessel arrived in Victoria after leaving Romania where she was built by Damen Shipyards Group. It is the fourth of six Island-class ships – capable of carrying up to 300 passengers and 50 vehicles – that will operate along the routes of Gulf Island off the coast of British Columbia by the end of from 2022.

“These battery-powered hybrid-electric ferries mark an important step in our plan to gradually reduce emissions from our fleet and be a leader in the transition to a low-carbon future,” said Mark Collins, President and CEO of BC Ferries, in an exclusive interview with Autonomy Electric Canada.

Compared to the ships they replace, the new ferries offer a 20% improvement in fuel economy. But this is only a starting point. Collins is also currently seeking federal funding to support a $ 150 million plan to convert these six vessels to full battery-electric capacity, including renovating terminals to install plug-in dockside charging stations.

Mark Collins, President and CEO of BC Ferries

Beyond that, BC Ferries’ long-term plan calls for approximately half of the company’s entire fleet of 36 vessels to be fully electrically powered, including seven other Island Class vessels. as well as five larger Coastal class ferries. The latter serves longer routes between Vancouver Island and mainland British Columbia.

Climate and customers

“Our motivations are twofold,” explains Collins. “One is to respond to climate change and the need to be part of the solution. We have a duty in this regard. The other aspect is the expectation of customers, the feeling that our ferry fleet should use best practices when it comes to operating on the coast and in this particular environment.

For now, new hybrid vessels will have the option of running on battery alone or diesel alone or a combination of the two. “We have about 45 minutes of battery life, which is roughly the length of most routes these ships take,” Collins explains.

“It’s on everyone’s agenda. Everyone wants to reduce carbon emissions. I have no doubts that all politicians in Ottawa support what we are trying to do.

Mark Collins, BC Ferries

At the same time, he is eager to consolidate government funding to start the conversion of $ 150 million of ships and terminals, which would involve nine terminals and take two to three years. At the end of August, Collins took advantage of the naming ceremony for the third and fourth new ferries to reiterate his appeal.

“We would provide a third of the funding. We proposed that the federal government provide the remaining two-thirds, ”he says.

Collins says his discussions have involved various ministries, including the environment, finance, the deputy prime minister’s office and the prime minister’s office. The funding he is seeking would come from Infrastructure Canada.

Complicated renovations

The renovations to the terminal would be a complex undertaking.

“We have to build a system to automatically connect the ship to the terminals. When the ship arrives in the port, you cannot let people run around the connection cables. Everything has to happen automatically. We talk a lot about electricity and we are around salt water which is conductive. So we have to be very careful, ”says Collins.

The task is further complicated by the tide models. “We have places with a tidal amplitude of six or eight meters, so the system has to compensate for the up and down movements of the vessel.

“When we have the chargers installed, we will triple the size of the battery banks on the ships. Right now it’s 800 kilowatt-hours, and we want to switch to all-electric operation that will boost that up to 2.4 megawatt hours. It gives us more reach. And we can charge overnight.

Since the federal election was called, negotiations on the project have stalled. Collins acknowledges that if the government changes, BC Ferries may have to start over. But he is fearless. “It’s on everyone’s agenda. Everyone wants to reduce carbon emissions. So we may need to do more education and persuasion, but I have no doubts that all politicians in Ottawa support what we are trying to do.

More Island Class ferries

Money for conversions and device upgrades isn’t the only item on Collins’ wishlist. He would also like to secure a contract for another round of seven new Island Class ferries.

Earlier this year, reports indicated that BC Ferries would present to the province and the federal government a plan to have these ferries built in a Canadian shipyard at a total project cost of about $ 1 billion.

Although BC Ferries has not commented on this report, no national shipbuilder has bid on the contract for the first six Island Class vessels (the tender elicited responses from 18 international shipyards) and Collins does not seem optimistic.

“We were disappointed,” he says. “We’ve gone to great lengths to convince Canadian companies to bid because that’s the size of ship that can be built in Canada. It was a great opportunity for Canadian shipyards to get involved and learn. If they don’t bid on this project, then I don’t think they’ll ever bid on anything for BC Ferries because it was the most suitable vessel for Canadian shipbuilding.

If the next set of ships were built here, the price would be significantly higher than the amount paid by BC Ferries to Damen Shipyards, a Dutch company, for the first six Island Class hybrids. The project cost for the last four ships of this order, signed in 2019, was around $ 200 million.

Bigger ships, bigger batteries

The other step in its plan – the electrification of BC Ferries’ five major coastal class ferries, which currently account for 20% of the company’s total fuel consumption – will require even more work.

They are huge ships, carrying 1,600 passengers and over 300 cars. Collins says building new ships of this size would require the development of larger batteries than are currently available.

Even as batteries are developed, Collins says BC Ferries should also work with BC Hydro to ensure there is enough power generation to keep ships charged.

“We would have three ships based in Tsawwassen. That’s a huge amount of energy that you need to bring in overnight to handle the load. BC Hydro will need to install new transmission lines.

But Collins is committed to achieving that goal.

“We’re going to be looking very seriously at electrifying these big ships and if we can get everyone to line up on that they will probably be the biggest electric ferries in the world.

“It’s a race. It could take five or six years to get there. Maybe someone will beat us to the end, but nothing would make us more happy than British Columbia to be first.

As the electric boats soar, where does Canada stand?


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