In an exclusive interview, BC Ferries CEO Mark Collins outlines his plan to convert at least half of the operator’s 36-vessel fleet to electric, updates his pitch for government support, and reflects on a disappointing lack of interest from Canadian shipyards
In mid-August, BC Ferries’ latest hybrid-electric vessel arrived in Victoria after sailing from Romania where it was built by Damen Shipyards Group. It’s the fourth of six Island Class vessels — capable of carrying up to 300 passengers and 50 vehicles — that will be operating along Gulf Island routes off the B.C. coast by the end of 2022.
“These battery hybrid-electric ferries mark a major milestone in our plan to progressively lower emissions across our fleet and be a leader in transitioning to a lower-carbon future,” says Mark Collins, BC Ferries president and CEO, in an exclusive interview with Electric Autonomy Canada.
Compared to the vessels they’re replacing, the new ferries deliver a 20 per cent improvement in fuel economy. But that’s just a starting point. Collins is also currently seeking federal funding to support a $150-million plan to convert these six vessels to full battery-electric capacity, including terminal renovations to install plug-in charging stations dockside.
Beyond that, BC Ferries’ long-term plan sees about half of the company’s entire fleet of 36 ships powered entirely by electricity — including seven more Island Class vessels as well as five larger Coastal Class ferries. The latter service longer routes between Vancouver Island and the B.C. mainland.
Climate and customers
“Our motivations are two-fold,” says Collins. “One is responding to climate change and the need to be part of the solution. We have a duty towards that. The other aspect is customer expectation, the feeling that our ferry fleet should be employing the best practices when it comes to operating on the coast and in this particular environment.”
For now, the new hybrid vessels will have the option of running on battery power alone or diesel alone or a combination of the two. “We have about a 45-minute range on batteries, which is about the length of most of the routes that these ships travel,” says Collins.
At the same time, he’s anxious to firm up government funding to get started on the $150-million vessel and terminal conversions, which would involve nine terminals and take two to three years to complete. In late August, Collins used the occasion of the naming ceremony for the third and fourth new ferries to reiterate his appeal.
“We would put up a third of the funding. We were proposing that the federal government come up with the other two-thirds,” he says.
Collins says his discussions have involved various government departments including environment, finance, the deputy prime minister’s office, and the prime minister’s office. The funding he’s seeking would come from Infrastructure Canada.
The terminal renovations would be a complex undertaking.
“We have to build a system to connect the ship to the terminals automatically. When the ship arrives in the harbour you can’t have people running around connecting cables. It must all be done automatically. We’re talking a lot of electricity and we’re around saltwater which is conductive. So, we’ve got to be very careful,” says Collins.
The task is further complicated by tidal patterns. “We have places with a six- or eight-metre tidal range, so the system has to compensate for the ship moving up and down.
“When we get the chargers installed, we will triple the size of the battery banks on the ships. Right now, it is 800 kilowatt hours, and we want to convert to all-electric operation that will boost that up to 2.4 megawatt hours. That gives us more range. And we can charge overnight.”
Since the federal election call, negotiations on the project have been at a standstill. Collins recognizes that if the government changes, BC Ferries may have to make its pitch all over again. But he is undaunted. “This is in everyone’s agenda. Everyone wants carbon reduction. So, we may have to do some more education and persuasion, but I’m convinced that all the politicians in Ottawa support what we’re trying to do.”
More Island Class ferries
Money for conversions and terminal upgrades isn’t the only item on Collins’ wish list. He also would like to secure a contract for another set of seven new Island Class ferries.
Earlier this year, reports indicated that BC Ferries was going to go to the province and the federal government with a plan that would see those ferries built in a Canadian shipyard at a total project cost of about $1 billion.
While BC Ferries hasn’t commented on that report, no domestic shipbuilders bid on the contract for the first six Island Class vessels (the tender did draw responses from 18 international shipyards) and Collins doesn’t sound optimistic.
“We were disappointed,” he says. “We went to some length to convince Canadian companies to bid because this is the size of ship that can be built in Canada. It was a great opportunity for Canadian shipyards to get involved and get on that learning curve. If they won’t bid on this project, then I don’t think they will ever bid on anything for BC Ferries because this was the ship most suited for Canadian ship construction.”
If the next set of ships were built here, the price tag would be significantly higher than the amount BC Ferries paid Damen Shipyards, a Dutch company, for the first six Island Class hybrids. The project cost for the final four vessels in that order, signed in 2019, was about $200 million.
Bigger ships, bigger batteries
The other stage in his plan — electrifying BC Ferries’ five large Coastal Class ferries, which currently account for 20 per cent of the corporation’s total fuel consumption — will take even more doing.
These are huge ships, which carry 1,600 passengers and more than 300 cars. Collins says building new vessels this size would require development of batteries larger than any currently available.
Even if the batteries are developed, Collins says BC Ferries would also need to work with BC Hydro to ensure that there is sufficient electricity generation to keep the vessels charged.
“We would have three ships based in Tsawwassen. That’s a massive amount of power you need to be bringing in overnight to handle the charging. BC Hydro will need to run in new transmission lines.”
But Collins is committed to this goal.
“We’re going to look really hard at electrifying these big ships and if we can get everyone lined up on that they will likely be the biggest electric ferries in the world.
“It’s a race. It could take five or six years to get there. Maybe someone will beat us to the punch, but nothing would give us greater pleasure than for British Columbia to be first.”