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State Ferry System Sets Course to Convert to Cheaper LNG Fuel

Washington State Ferries
Schematic showing LNG fuel tank retrofit atop a Washington state ferry.

The nation's biggest ferry system is setting a course to convert some of its fleet from diesel to natural gas propulsion. This month, Washington State Ferries formally asked the U.S. Coast Guard to review the proposed changeover. The latest move is another example of fleet operators in the Northwest taking a hard look at cheaper fuel.

After three years of study, the Washington State Department of Transportation has determined it is technically and financially feasible to convert six mid-sized car ferries to run on cleaner-burning liquefied natural gas, or LNG. Assistant Secretary David Moseley told lawmakers that moving away from diesel could save 40 to 50 percent at today’s pricing.

“One reason for looking at this is cost: can we reduce the cost of our fastest-growing operating expense? And secondly, can we reduce the amount of emissions that we put into the environment?” Moseley said.

State budget documents project annual fuel savings of $1.1 million per vessel. That yields a payback period of around 12 years on an estimated cost of $12 to $15 million per ferry to convert to LNG fuel. 

Washington is not alonein making the switch. BC Ferries is leaning toward natural gas fuel for three new ferries it’s about to order. And earlier this year, the freight line TOTE commissioned designs for the LNG conversion of two cargo ships that sail between Tacoma and Alaska.

With U.S. Coast Guard approval and funding from the state Legislature, Washington State Ferries could begin converting the first ferry to LNG propulsion in 2016. 

The six car ferries WSF has identified as most suitable for conversion are the M/V Issaquah, M/VKittitas, M/V Chelan, M/V Kitsap, M/V Cathlamet and M/V Sealth. The Issaquah Class ferries carry 124 cars, with exception of the Sealth, which has a 90-car capacity.

Correspondent Tom Banse is an Olympia-based reporter with more than three decades of experience covering Washington and Oregon state government, public policy, business and breaking news stories. Most of his career was spent with public radio's Northwest News Network, but now in semi-retirement his work is appearing on other outlets.