Why BC Ferries won't be going all-electric anytime soon

A B.C. company is leading the way helping ferry fleets around the world go green with electric power systems. But don't expect BC Ferries to be dropping its reliance on fossil fuels anytime soon. Here's why.

Critics say world-class battery technology from B.C. could be used on at least 9 BC Ferries routes

Norway's all-electric car ferry uses hydroelectric power to charge its Corvus batteries. (Siemens)

BC Ferries has no plans to go electric with its ships anytime soon despite the worldwide movement toward greener battery-powered ferries using technology made right here in B.C.

From Norway to Washington state — ferry fleets are cutting fossil fuels and greenhouse gas emissions by launching vessels that run largely — and some entirely — on battery power.

But not so in B.C., where a continued reliance on fossil fuels such as diesel and liquefied natural gas (LNG) on coastal ferries is frustrating critics.

BC Ferries newest Salish Class vessels are capable of running on either ultra-low sulphur diesel or LNG, which results in the reduction of an estimated 9,000 metric tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent per year. (BC Ferries)

"We should be absolute leaders here," said Guy Dauncey, an author and sustainability advocate, who thinks BC Ferries should be doing more to adopt the green technology.

Dauncey says the technology has already proven to be economically feasible on shorter routes and he's identified at least nine BC Ferries routes suitable to make the switch.

But BC Ferries vice president Mark Wilson says right now, the marine battery technology is not feasible for its vessels. That's because its ferries need to operate on both short and longer routes, so they need the range diesel power provides. 

"One day down the road you'll see an all-electric ferry. The question is when," Wilson said.

Cutting edge B.C. technology

Around the world, ferry fleets are turning to a B.C. company that makes bus-sized batteries to power their vessels and cut their greenhouse gas emissions.

Corvus Energy first emerged from the Richmond garage of two entrepreneurs about a decade ago. Vice president Sean Puchalski, says since then, the company has grown to be a world leader in marine battery technology.

The ferries they power come in a range of configurations, depending on the length and location of the routes they are designed to run.

With the most popular diesel-electric hybrid systems, the batteries can either be used as the primary power source or as back-up to conventional engines.

Corvus's Orca batteries have been used in ships and ferries around the world. (Corvus)

But on shorter routes —  roughly 20 to 30 minutes — the ferries can run entirely on batteries, hooking into clean hydropower to charge up each time they stop to load vehicles.

In fact in 2014, Corvus Energy helped build the world's first all-battery-powered car ferry for the Norwegian ferry company Norled. 

The quick-charging vessel makes its 5.6 kilometre trip across Norway's Sognefjord 34 times a day without burning a drop of fossil fuel.

And as the technology continues to improve, more ambitious projects with larger ships and longer routes are in the works, says Puchalski.

But because the batteries are so expensive, Puchalski agrees that for now electric-only systems are still best suited to shorter routes where the savings in fuel pays for the more expensive technology.

North America slow to adopt new technology

Green MLA Adam Olsen is another proponent of electric ferries who thinks BC Ferries could be doing more to adopt the new technology.

"What's super frustrating for me is knowing that the European ferry systems are electrifying, are using a B.C. company's batteries, and we are not."

Sweden-based Stena Line has chosen Richmond, B.C.'s Corvus Energy to supply the battery for its first hybrid-style ferry. The ultimate goal is for the Stena Jutlandica to fully operate on battery power for the crossing between Sweden and Denmark, which takes three hours and 25 minutes. (Gegik/Wikimedia Commons)

"This drives me up the wall," says Olsen, who represents Saanich North and Islands, one of the top ridings for BC Ferries passengers.

Currently, 90 per cent of Corvus Energy's battery systems are exported overseas, often to Northern Europe and Asia where regulations, fuel taxes and subsidies make them economical.

In comparison, a lack of regulations and incentives means North American sales have been slow. However, Puchalski says there are signs that is starting to change.

Washington state makes electric plans

One sign of that sea-change came earlier this month when Washington state's ferry service announced plans to convert its three largest ferries to run primarily on hydroelectric power.

Once the conversion is complete, the three hybrid ferries will run on batteries that will be charged with green hydro power at the ferry terminal. The remaining diesel engines will only be used to provide extra power, say officials.

The Puyallup is one of the three largest ferries in the Washington fleet that will be converted to primarily electric power, the state recently announced. (Joe Mabel/Wikimedia Commons)

Not yet feasible says BC Ferries

Back at BC Ferries, Wilson notes the corporation is planning to build eight new smaller vessels with a hybrid diesel-battery power supply using batteries from B.C.'s Corvus Energy.

Since the new ferries need to work a range of routes along B.C.'s southern coast — some over an hour in length — it's not feasible yet to make them all-electric, says Wilson.

"We want to work with the technology that is best for the taxpayers. It still has to be economically viable."

BC Ferries has commenced work on the first of eight new ferries that will be powered with a diesel-battery hybrid system that will run primarily on the diesel engine. (BC Ferries)

Instead of charging the ship's batteries at the dock from a charging station providing clean hydropower, the new ferries will be charged by the diesel engine onboard.

That means greenhouse gas reductions will be limited to 20 per cent, instead of the 90 or 100 per cent reductions that a charging station can provide.