Opinion: West Shore ferries could be electric

This first appeared in the Times Colonist on April 2nd 2019 

Context: This article ran a few years ago, but I still find it an intriguing idea to create fast, low-carbon public transit to the West Shore. 



Like many local citizens, I was excited to learn that B.C. Ferries is exploring passenger ferry service from the West Shore to Esquimalt and Victoria.

If done well, the ferry service could reduce vehicle congestion, speed commutes, prevent sprawl and reduce the capital region’s transportation-related emissions.

I was disappointed, however, to learn that SNC-Lavalin — the now-infamous consulting firm used by B.C. Ferries — is not considering electric-ferry options.

In completing its report, SNC-Lavalin made contact with only one shipbuilding firm — Damen Shipyards of the Netherlands — which builds conventional, diesel-powered vessels. One proposal would see the West Shore ferry service operated by five diesel-fuel ferries.

But other options exist — options that get our public transit off fossil fuels.

Norway is using electric ferries for some of its maritime service. The ferries are the product of a partnership between Norled AS (the operator), Fjellstrand Shipyard, Siemens and Richmond’s own Corvus Energy. The first electric ferry entered service in 2015 and runs on battery packs that are periodically charged in port. According to Siemens, these ferries reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 95 per cent (as well as nitrogen oxides) and reduce operational costs by 80 per cent (vis-à-vis diesel), due to the relatively cheap cost of electricity.

There is no reason that the West Shore ferries couldn’t be electric, especially given the short travel distances of under 10 kilometres. Indeed, the Clean B.C. plan notes that the inland ferry fleet in B.C. will be converted to electric by 2040, so the province is clearly thinking about electrified ferry service. But those ferries are not run by B.C. Ferries, which has tended to prefer fossil fuels.

I call on the Capital Regional District, local mayors and councils, and B.C. Ferries to work with a consulting firm that is willing to explore the feasibility of electric ferries. Choosing electric would be an excellent way for the capital region to demonstrate leadership in the transition to a post-carbon economy.

It would also demonstrate a commitment to long-term financial sustainability, since the operational costs of electric transportation are so low, while simultaneously drawing on local technology and labour (Corvus Energy).

Jeremy L. Caradonna is a professor in the School of Environmental Studies at the University of Victoria.