The control panels for the hybrid tugboat are made from existing components. ((CBC))

A small company on P.E.I. has shipped the control panels for what will be the world's first hybrid tugboat, operating on a diesel motor and electricity.

The challenge in creating such a tug is making seamless the transition between the electric motor and the powerful, 500 hp diesel engine, whenever it's needed. It was a challenge marine engineer Jason Aspin couldn't resist. It was also an opportunity to return home to P.E.I. to work on a project.

"We were looking at P.E.I. because there's quite a green push here as far as technology goes and we wanted to get on board with that, and also push it along into another area. So that's why we're here," Aspin told CBC News Tuesday.

Aspin has worked most of the last two decades designing and consulting for the oil business, but returned to P.E.I. to work on this project. He has developed hybrid engines for sailboats. But doing the same for a tugboat, given the huge variations in power requirements, is much more difficult.

Tugs need enormous engines to push container ships around, but they need that power less than 10 per cent of the time. Operating those engines continuously not only takes a lot of fuel, but requires expensive maintenance.


Jason Aspin was looking for an opportunity to return home to P.E.I. ((CBC))

While the control panels were designed and manufactured by Aspin Kemp and Associates in Stratford, just east of Charlottetown, the tugboat itself is being built by Foss, a builder and operator based on the west coast of the U.S. The tug is destined for use in the port at Long Beach, Calif.

Rick McKenna of Foss believes there could be a huge market for the hybrid.

"It should be really substantial, not just in the United States and Canada but in Europe and China, South America. Any place with a port," he said.

"If you can get something for a little extra cost, provides your return financially from fuel and maintenance, and cleans the environment. It's just positive, positive. Why wouldn't you do it?"

Aspin recently presented a paper on his control panels at an international tug show in Singapore. The panels use existing components; the design lies solely in the configuration. In addition to providing seamless power as needed for the captain, the panels also had to fit into the hull of an existing tug design.

McKenna said Aspin's company is years ahead of the competition with his design.

Eight people were involved with the design and construction of the first set of control panels. That number could easily double as orders start to flow in, and a new facility could also be on the agenda.

With the new control panels that were shipped Wednesday, the Long Beach tug is expected to be up and running by December.