While electric passenger ferries use relatively new maritime technologies and might seem novel in British Columbia (BC), coastal communities in different parts of the world are already building them and putting them to use. One of the global leading experts in deploying electric ferries is Michael Eaglen, naval architect and CEO of EV Maritime, based in Auckland, New Zealand.
Earlier in his career, Michael studied small craft naval architecture in England before taking a job with a yacht design firm in New Zealand. Following an America's Cup campaign with Team New Zealand, he worked for an engineering consultancy specializing in composite boats. Michael was Commercial Manager then CEO at McMullen & Wing, a New Zealand-based shipyard that specializes in superyachts.
Greenline recently caught up with Michael Eaglen to hear about his latest electric ferry projects and how he thinks electric passenger ferries will work for BC.
Greenline Ferries (GF): When did your interest in electric ferries begin?
Michael Eaglen (ME): While I was at McMullen & Wing, we started looking into electric ferries and found that, as a product, they didn't suit the traditional “custom” approach in the industry. It was apparent to us that the time and effort and money required to produce a good electric boat was something that would be unsustainable on an individual project basis.
But it also became apparent to us that you didn't need to design a different boat for every service because there was a great deal of convergence between requirements around the urban public transport. And there was a real possibility to develop a platform design, which would serve a very large number of applications very well.
We worked out that it was probably going to need some outside investment. We ended up developing a 24-meter battery electric fast passenger ferry. From McMullen & Wing, we spun EV Maritime into its own company in 2019. We are a designer, a project initiator, a consultant, and a systems integrator for electric inshore commercial boats.
GF: What’s the status of your current project in Auckland?
ME: We were successful in securing central government funding here in New Zealand to support two battery electric power series to be built for Auckland Transport, our municipal public transport authority. We are working to deliver two carbon fiber, 25-knot, 200-passenger battery electric fast ferries.
Those boats are nearing completion of their fabrication and they'll be ones launching in the middle of 2024. They'll be the first full-size electric ferries dropping into the Auckland public transport fleet of about 27 passenger-only ferries.
GF: What benefits do electric ferries bring to coastal communities?
ME: The thing that got us into doing this in the first place was addressing the climate challenge. Diesel-powered fast ferries are extremely energy-intensive and the emissions that they produce are disproportionate to the role that they serve, so it's hard to justify diesel powered ferries in a modern public transport setting. Many people believe in public transport as a more sustainable way of moving people around our cities than private vehicles, but diesel fast ferries won’t always live up to that promise. A related benefit is in reducing the impact on marine life.
And then there's economic benefits. It's not a get-rich-quick scheme, but electric ferries, when you look at their total cost of ownership including the cost of maintenance and the cost of replacing batteries periodically over the life of the ferries, are more cost-effective than diesel ferries. So while they cost more to buy in the first place, the energy costs less and the maintenance costs less and as a result they are more cost efficient than buying diesel ferries. Better economics means a reduced cost of operating ferries and ultimately lower ticket prices for people catching ferries.
GF: What challenges did you encounter in getting these two boats built? ME: I can appreciate that not many people want to be first, so I really credit our government for committing to this project. It took a lot of conversation, and a little bit of bravery, but ultimately we got the agreement to proceed.
The project itself has a number of dynamics. The boats themselves are technically quite challenging – problems that are solvable through engineering – but politically they are relatively straightforward. On the shore side, the opposite is true: getting the power delivered to the shore side in a suitable format for vessels – though technically straightforward – is politically challenging. We end up working with a lot of different agencies to get the approvals we need to put that infrastructure in.
GF: Where do you see electric ferries going in the coming years?
ME: A lot of the early projects we've seen are hybrid vessels, I think because people are either uncertain about their ability to get enough charging infrastructure down at the wharf to be able to go electric, or they've just been a bit nervous in general about going full electric. As more and more of these electric boats come on, hybrids will get pushed further and further towards the places where they're needed: maybe some of the tourist type services or some of the longer runs. But for urban public transport services, we see those being 100% electric.
Over the next 10 or 15 years, I believe we'll see all of the diesel ferries being phased out. Vancouver is a good example of one where the SeaBus, for example, could be electric. And likewise, the services in New York City could also go all electric.
What we’ve seen in Auckland, and what we’ve recently seen in San Francisco, for example, is a commitment to build no more diesel ferries. It’s the first step.
GF: How do you think people understand electric ferries, and what’s the recipe for success of a service? ME: I like to use the analogy that an electric ferry is a bit like an electric bus, except you're driving it up a steep hill all day long. The amount of energy that these boats use is many, many, many times greater than what buses use. It’s an important consideration when thinking about where these boats show potential.
I think that the first thing is to get everybody on the same page about what an electric fleet looks like from an operational point of view. We put a lot of effort into working with potential customers all over the world to help them understand what their needs are. We help them frame out at a very early stage where an electric service might operate, what their energy demands might be, and what the implications are technically.
GF: How do you see passenger-only electric ferries working in BC?
In BC, the SeaBus service from Vancouver to North Vancouver is a great candidate. It’s also just a great ferry service in my opinion. The services from Vancouver out to Vancouver Island are a lot further, and would still be somewhat challenging to deliver on electric power alone.
GF: Do you think ferry transit systems should connect with other modes of transit in a community?
ME: Integration is so important. For us, it's not just about public transport, it's also about connectivity with active modes of transport as well.
Let me give you an example of what we do here in Auckland. I catch the bus from my house to the ferry in the morning and then the ferry to work. That bus is reliable and it lines up with the ferry service. Along the way, I get 40 minutes of work done on the ferry. On the odd days when I have to drive a car, I'm reminded how awful an experience it is to be stuck in traffic. I can't afford to waste time. To me, having a properly connected Metro public transport system so I don’t need to take a car is really important and it genuinely improves the life of the people living in the city.
Bikes are another consideration. While it’s not necessarily always viable to ride a bike to work unless you've got shower facilities at your office, e-bikes change all that. With an e-bike, you can be dressed for work and you can hop on your bike, and you can ride further to the ferry and when you get off the ferry, you can hop back on your bike and you can ride further to the office or wherever you work.
We designed our ferry around that. Rather than storing bikes on the aft deck or in exposed outdoor areas, we considered that if people have spent good money buying an e-bike, then they’d probably want to store in a fully enclosed layout. So while there’s a top deck to sit out in the fresh air if you want to, the main deck is fully enclosed and the only place for bikes is inside the main cabin. Details like that can make a really big difference to people's enthusiasm to use a bicycle with ferries and increases the uptake of cycling.
GF: Michael, so great to talk to you. Where can we follow along with your project?
ME: Feel free to follow us @evmaritime
Image source: https://evmaritime.com/, used with permission