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Washington State Ferries To Look Harder At Diesel To Electric Conversion

The MV Puyallup is one of three Jumbo Mark II state ferries under study for possible conversion from diesel to battery-electric power.
Tom Banse
Northwest News Network
The MV Puyallup is one of three Jumbo Mark II state ferries under study for possible conversion from diesel to battery-electric power.

Now that electric cars are a common sight on the nation's highways, and prototypes exist for electric trucks and airplanes, could electric ferries be next?

The 2018 state transportation budget signed by Washington Gov. Jay Inslee Tuesday includes money to look at converting some of the state ferry fleet.

The Legislature gave $600,000 to Washington State Ferries to explore how to convert three ferries from diesel to hybrid electric propulsion. Director of Vessels Matt von Ruden said the money will boost a nascent vessel electrification project. 

"We've done pre-design studies already to look at the vessels, terminals and the charging of the vessels, von Ruden said. “So we're ready now to move forward to actually engage industry on the solution." 

That solution appears to be to install massive banks of batteries below deck on the three largest of the 22 active vessels in the fleet. Von Ruden said technology has evolved sufficiently such that battery power alone can propel jumbo ferries across Puget Sound, although the converted ferries would still have back-up diesel generators on board.

The three ferries being proposed for conversion to hybrid electric propulsion are the Tacoma, Wenatchee and Puyallup, which serve the Seattle-Bainbridge and Edmonds-Kingston runs with 202 vehicle and 1,500 passenger capacity each. 

The ferry system says the Legislature would need to budget tens of millions of dollars of additional funding to carry out the propulsion conversions if this next phase of study shows feasibility and promise. Some of the capital costs would presumably be repaid with savings on the ferry system’s huge fuel bill.

According to a WSF spokesman, you could potentially ride across Puget Sound under electric power around five years from now.

Von Ruden said the ferry system is setting aside previous plans to convert six mid-sized car ferries from diesel to natural gas propulsion. Since 2011, the state has studied in-depth the possibility of retrofitting this class of vessels with liquefied natural gas tanks. LNG burns cleaner than diesel. 

"What's exciting is we can move beyond that now because the technology allows us to leverage the clean hydroelectric power that we are fortunate to have in the Pacific Northwest and actually make this trip all the way from Seattle to Bainbridge on electric power," von Ruden said in an interview aboard the M/V Tacoma. 

Washington state operates the nation's biggest ferry system. 

European countries, particularly Norway, are home to a handful of operating battery-powered ferries with more under construction in shipyards. 

State Senate Transportation Committee Chair Steve Hobbs said he is very excited about the potential for fuel savings and lower emissions. 

"With the big push of trying to reduce carbon and trying to make ourselves as a state more efficient, I think this is a great opportunity for this state to take these ferries that are running on diesel -- they put out a lot of carbon, a lot of pollution -- and let's see if we can start the process of conversion to electric," Hobbs said in an interview. 

The Legislature directed WSDOT to ask for a share of the money from Volkswagen's emissions cheating settlement to help transition state ferries to electric power. 

KNKX Reporter Bellamy Pailthorp contributed to this report.

Copyright 2018 Northwest News Network

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.
Tom Banse
Tom Banse covers national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reports from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events are unfolding. Tom's stories can be found online and heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.