UPDATED: LNG to power BC Ferries to a lower-carbon future

Maintaining service reliability complicates the publicly owned transportation company’s fossil fuel replacement game plan

BC Ferries’ LNG-fuelled Salish Orca | submitted

Steering a fleet of passenger ferries to greener waters requires a different set of charts than the one global freight carriers use.

Its main cargo is people, not goods; its main purpose is providing transportation links for those passengers and their community services, not moving consumer goods and other cargo on international trade loops. Unlike massive container ships, ferries are directly in the public eye. Experimenting with new fuels and propulsion systems is therefore not an option.

“We have to maintain reliable and resilient service because we are taking people to work and the kids to school, and so we don’t have the ability to experiment,” said BC Ferries CEO Mark Collins. 

“It has got to be a prudent approach, and so we are trying to balance surging ahead and taking risk against our need to be prudent with [capital], prudent with reliability.” 

But that doesn’t mean that B.C.’s publicly owned marine transportation company is not being innovative in reducing its carbon footprint.

BC Ferries’ Clean Futures Plan targets greenhouse gas emission cuts in part by replacing fossil fuel with cleaner energy options to drive its 36-ship fleet.

That will be a big job because fossil fuel accounts for 94% of BC Ferries’ energy consumption.

The marine diesel its ships use is cleaner and much lower in sulphur content than the heavy bunker fuel that the global container shipping fleet relies on, but it’s still a major air pollutant.

Maintaining ferry reliability en route from marine diesel to renewable energy is not a direct voyage from A to B. In BC Ferries’ case, it will require an excursion through LNG (liquefied natural gas).

“We can’t be doing prototypes on our population,” Collins said. “So we needed to go with something that was leading edge but not bleeding edge.”

Fortunately for BC Ferries, B.C. has a lot of natural gas.

BC Ferries and local companies like FortisBC also have a lot of experience working with it. 

So starting in 2016-17 with the delivery of BC Ferries’ three Salish-class ships, the company has begun shifting ferry fuel to natural gas, which is cleaner than diesel and produces almost no particulates, sulphur or nitrous oxide emissions.

It also generates about a third less carbon dioxide than diesel.

Incorporating LNG in BC Ferries’ fleet required far more than redesigned ships and intensive crew retraining. Building separate fuelling piers for natural-gas-powered ferries carried a prohibitive price tag of around $200 million.

BC Ferries receives no external funding for such major infrastructure projects.

Collins needed Plan B.

He got it working with FortisBC. Together the two companies developed what Collins said is the world’s first on-deck LNG fuelling system. It allows trucks to drive onto a ship to refuel it in the same way conventional diesel-powered ferries are refuelled.

The system, Collins said, “was a made-in-B.C. innovation. It was really Fortis and BC Ferries working together that created that technology. It was conceived, engineered and built here in B.C.”

LNG-powered ferries cost roughly 10% more to build than their conventional marine-diesel counterparts. But Collins said LNG is about half the price of diesel.

The payback on an LNG-
powered ship, he said, can therefore “be as little as three or four years, and three or four years in our industry is screamingly good.”

Any savings on BC Ferries’ annual $100 million fuel bill go straight to the company’s bottom line.

But natural gas is still a fossil fuel that produces carbon dioxide when burned.

“So it’s not as good as you might wish on CO2, but it is better than not doing anything,” Collins said. “We recognize that LNG is a fossil fuel, and some day we will need to get off it, but right now it’s much cleaner than marine diesel, it’s locally available [and] it’s a B.C.-based fuel. So we are not dealing with the ethics of bringing it in from a dubious foreign jurisdiction; it doesn’t take any transport to get it here; it’s a gas in a pipeline so spills are very low; and it’s abundant.”

Collins added that marine fuel options like ammonia, hydrogen and methanol being considered by major global shipping lines all have their pros and cons, but their main drawback is availability.

Battery power could be the ultimate key in getting BC Ferries across the fossil-fuel-free finish line, but battery technology and recharging capacity are not up to the task yet, especially for larger vessels.

BC Ferries’ first new hybrid diesel-electric Island Class ferries arrived in the province from a shipyard in Romania on January 18. The two ships, which can carry 47 vehicles and between 300 and 450 passengers, will service the Powell River-Texada Island and Port McNeill-Alert Bay routes. Until shore power infrastructure and electric charging technology can deliver the amount of electricity the ships need for all-electric operation, BC Ferries says that electricity will be generated by an on-board low-sulphur diesel-hybrid system. Netherlands-based Damen Shipyards Group was awarded the $86.5 million contract to build the two vessels in June 2017.

Collins estimated that, at the company’s current investment capacity, BC Ferries’ fleet could be weaned entirely off marine diesel by 2050.

“People often demand that you should be doing it now, and I say, absolutely, I would love nothing more than to be able to do it now, but I also need to be reliable for your community, because you’ll forget you insisted I do it now if your ferry breaks down tomorrow morning.” •