San Francisco Gets Serious about Fuel-Cell Ferry Service

Featured, Technology  /   /  By Bradley Berman

A proposed hydrogen fueling station in San Francisco would be the first one in the world that serves boats as well as cars. “The vision is that all ferry service on the Bay would be zero emissions,” said Port spokesperson Renée Dunn Martin, in a report by The San Francisco Examiner. Port officials identified Pier 54 as the most feasible location.

In California, there are currently about 20 hydrogen filling stations, serving more than 300 drivers of hydrogen fuel-cell cars. Most of the stations are in Southern California. In the Bay Area, there are stations operating in Mill Valley, Emeryville, South San Francisco, and Hayward. And yet, there aren’t any stations located directly in San Francisco.

“We definitely need to have at least one hydrogen filling station in San Francisco,” said Chris White, a spokesperson for the California Fuel Cell Partnership. About 50 stations are expected to be available across the state by the end of 2017.

Unlike the diesel-powered ferries that carry most passengers today, hydrogen fuel-cell ferries produce no harmful exhaust emissions. They have higher energy efficiency, offer quiet operation, and pose no risk of fuel spills.

The idea of a hydrogen station to support passenger ferry service in San Francisco started four years ago, when operators began exploring alternatives to fossil fuels. That’s when Tom Escher, president of Red and White Fleet, discovered maritime hydrogen fuel cell research being done by Sandia National Laboratories in nearby Livermore, Calif. That led to a $500,000 grant from the Department of Transportation Maritime Administration. After 15 months of research, it was determined that it is indeed feasible to use hydrogen-powered fuel cells to operate a 149-passenger catamaran-style ferry.

The station is expected to cost about $5 million to build. It would become the largest hydrogen fueling station in the world—serving not only the ferries, but also fuel cell electric cars and buses. According to initial estimates, the station would have the capacity to pump 1,500 kilograms of hydrogen per day, of which the ferry would consumer about 1,000 kilograms. An average hydrogen fuel cell, like the Toyota Mirai, can hold about five kilograms, granting more than 300 miles of driving range.

More research work is underway to optimize the design of the fuel-cell ferry, which would cost about twice as much to construct as a conventional ferry. To be named SF BREEZE—standing for “San Francisco Bay Renewable Energy Electric vessel with Zero Emissions”—the boat will be purpose built. The ferry will be designed in a collaboration between Sandia, the Red and White Fleet, and the American Bureau of Shipping and the Coast Guard—to ensure the ship conforms to safety and reliability regulations.

In a 2013 report, the Royal Academy of Engineering and the International Maritime Organization, stated: “If, in the future, a hydrogen economy is adopted, then hydrogen may become a realistic marine fuel option.” In 2000, a 22-person hydrogen fuel-cell powered ship debuted on the Rhine, near Bonn, Germany. The ship—dubbed The Hydra—transported about 2,000 passengers, including participants in an electric boat conference, before being retired in 2001.

While refueling would most likely occur at ports, it is also possible to use wind power and solar panels to generate electricity on board to produce hydrogen. Researchers at Sandia are also exploring the use of hydrogen to power docked and anchored ships—rather than using diesel generators and grid connections as they do today.

Fuel-cell ships, and those powered by batteries, are also currently operating in Norway, where the feasibility of operating several zero-emission ferries along the coast of the country is being explored.

With high prospects for a significant increase in adoption of fuel-cell cars in California—which would also utilize the port-based station—the rationale for building the ship and station to serve ferries running in San Francisco Bay makes sense. “The proximity of Port property to the high population density of San Francisco would make a port-based hydrogen station valuable in many respects,” said Elaine Forbes, interim executive director of the Port.

Escher, the president of Red and White Fleet, is so encouraged by the planning that he set a specific launch date for the SF BREEZE: March 17, 2018, at 10 a.m.

 

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