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ABB And Vigor Are Helping Washington State Electrify Its Iconic Ferries

A Washington State Ferry travels past the city skyline through Puget Sound. Photographer: Meg Roussos/Bloomberg. © 2014 Bloomberg Finance LP

One of the main attractions of the Pacific Northwest is the outdoors, with its unique mix of sea, mountains and forest. The Seattle area’s very active maritime industry, though, can be at odds with the notion of a pristine environment, with most commercial craft relying on loud, polluting diesel engines.

Recent advances in electrification technology offer new solutions, however. Those have prompted the state of Washington to chart a new course for its ferry fleet. Joining forces with shipbuilder Vigor Industrial and engineering and technology company ABB, Washington State Ferries will build the first five in a total of 16 new vessels and move to a fully hybrid-electric fleet by 2040.

Vigor is a diversified fabrication company with seven locations and 2,300 employees in Washington, Oregon and Alaska. Headquartered in Portland, Oregon, the company is owned privately by The Carlyle Group and Stellex Capital Management, and focuses on shipbuilding, ship repair, and other fabrication projects for aerospace, military, infrastructure, and energy applications.

ABB is a provider of engineering services, advanced motion, robotics, and electrification technologies, and software solutions to wide-ranging industries. Over 130 years old, ABB is headquartered in Zurich, Switzerland, with its U.S. headquarters in Cary, North Carolina. The company has over 20,000 American employees and more than 110,000 employees worldwide in more than 100 countries. Last year, ABB generated $28 billion in annual revenue.

“Ships are becoming more and more electrified and connected,” said Juha Koskela, President of ABB’s Maritime & Ports division. “Hydrogen fuel cells are another solution. There’s more and more pressure for operators to meet the International Maritime Organization’s target to cut CO2 emissions by 50% by 2050.”

Washington State Ferry in Puget Sound. Getty

“Seattle’s ferries are iconic, and Seattle is a maritime city,” added Edward Schwarz, ABB Marine & Ports’ Americas VP Sales. “The Washington State Ferries are the biggest system in the U.S., and number four or five in the world. For them to say they’re going electric is huge. It’s the first large-scale U.S. fleet going hybrid-electric. Most of the electric ferries until now have been in Scandinavia.”

Vigor will handle the five new ship builds and the hardware portion of the conversions. ABB is a single-source vendor for the hybrid-electric systems for the new vessels, providing turnkey solutions for ship power systems integration. The new and retrofitted ferries will be designed to optimize energy use, with the ability to draw on main engine power, battery power, or a combination of the two. Fuel use is projected to be cut in half by 2040, and the ferries are expected to meet their 2050 CO2 reduction goals by 2034.

“This will make a huge impact on Seattle’s downtown air quality,” said Schwarz. “It will be a big plus for noise as well. These will be truly zero-emission vessels when they’re using battery power, since the charging electricity will come mostly from hydropower sources.”

The project is currently in its design phase. The planned new Olympic Class ferries will have the capacity to carry 144 cars and 1,500 passengers each. Once the design is approved by the state of Washington, final orders will be placed, with the first ferry delivery expected in 2024. The plan is to deliver subsequent vessels at a rate of one every 14 months.

“The U.S. maritime industry has always lagged in technology,” Schwarz said. “The pride has always been on robustness rather than the latest technologies. This project will serve as a demo for other areas of the industry.” He sees big future opportunities in tugs, tow boats, cruise ships, and container ships. “They all operate at constant speed and require lots of power – those requirements lend themselves to electrification.”

Workers prepare to launch The Maid of the Mist tour boat. AP Photo/David Duprey. ASSOCIATED PRESS

In the meantime, ABB has also been working on the other side of the U.S., in New York state. There, two existing Maid of the Mist diesel tour boats at Niagara Falls are being replaced with two zero-emission, all-electric catamarans. ABB partnered with Maid of the Mist to deliver these first all-electric vessels to be built in America. The new tour boats are doing their final Coast Guard qualification tests now, and should be in service by the end of the season.

Opportunities aren’t restricted to the maritime industry. “We offer high power and fast charging integrated systems,” said Koskela. “We’re taking a holistic look at transportation in general. We can see things coming in trains and buses as well.”

“What we’re trying to do is to use electricity to bring the whole package, from the utility right to the propellers and wheels,” added Schwarz. “Our end goal is to help make all our transportation systems more sustainable.”

This article has been edited to update the job titles of those quoted.

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