maritime vessel called 'salty curls' coming alongside pier with lighthouse atop it
Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, with federal government support, are currently investigating opportunities to electrify certain classes of vessels in an effort to help decarbonize the marine transportation sector. Photo: Prince Edward Island Fishermen’s Association

With pressure building on the commercial marine sector to decarbonize, stakeholders in the Atlantic Provinces are taking the lead with pilot programs, vessel launches and policy research to develop new solutions for commercial watercraft

While the momentum for electrifying vehicles on the road is in full swing all across Canada, another wave of the transition is occurring on the water with battery-electric and hybrid marine vessels.

Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, with federal government support, are currently investigating opportunities to electrify certain classes of vessels in an effort to help decarbonize the marine transportation sector.

Next spring, the Prince Edward Island Fishermen’s Association (PEIFA) is planning to launch a pilot project to test different energy-efficient vessel propulsion systems, such as electric, hybrid or alternative fuels, for nine of the PEIFA’s inshore lobster fishing vessels. With combined funding of $3 million provided by both the federal and provincial governments, distributed through the Atlantic Fisheries Fund, the PEIFA is at the preliminary stages of developing the pilot.

Meanwhile, the Centre for Ocean Ventures and Entrepreneurship (COVE), a Dartmouth, N.S.-based ocean technology organization, recently completed a study for the Nova Scotia government to assess the province’s market activities, technology trends and supply chain capabilities in order to determine the potential for marine electrification and identify the strategies required to promote success.

headshot of Melanie Nadeau
Melanie Nadeau, CEO of the Centre for Ocean Ventures and Entrepreneurship. Photo: Linkedin

“There’s obviously political pressure and there are global pressures to reduce our impacts,” says Melanie Nadeau, CEO of COVE in an interview with Electric Autonomy Canada.

“There’s definitely an awareness [to electrify] but we’re always trying to figure it out. How is this going to work? How is it going to work economically? That’s sort of the big question. So you’ve got to incentivize, there’s got to be a market push to be able to get there.”

P.E.I.’s “alternative propulsion” pilot

Two closely linked goals are driving the Prince Edward Island’s Fishermen’s Association upcoming pilot: cut down on their emissions and fuel costs.

“What we’re looking at is alternative propulsion sources for fishing boats, which will include electric or some component of electric,” says Ian MacPherson, senior adviser for the Prince Edward Island Fishermen’s Association in an interview with Electric Autonomy.

The PEIFA is currently seeking requests for proposals from suppliers and manufacturers to determine what type of propulsion systems will be used for the two-year program.

headshot of Ian MacPherson
Ian MacPherson, senior adviser for the Prince Edward Island Fishermen’s Association. Photo: Linkedin

MacPherson says the type of propulsion engine that will be selected will depend on which companies respond to the RFPs and what technology is ready to be field-tested.

The pilot plan calls for nine vessels to be deployed in groups of three at three different lobster-fishing spots around the island “because the water and wind conditions are a little different in each area,” explains MacPherson. The PEIFA will collaborate with engineering firm Stantec Consulting in Charlottetown on the installation of onboard testing equipment for the selected vessels.

“One of the points of the pilot project is that, if there are positive results that come out of it, then that’ll maybe encourage manufacturers to produce their units on a wider scale, or maybe the price comes down depending on what their price point is and there’s a wider adaptation of new technology,” says MacPherson.

Hybrid-electric fishing boats

One example of a local company that is making strong headway in the marine vessel manufacturing space is P.E.I.-headquartered engineering company, Aspin Kemp & Associates (AKA). The company, which has 15 years of experience building hybrid-electric tugboats and ferries, recently unveiled its first-ever hybrid fishing vessel at a boat show in Moncton in March.

headshot of Tobia Isa
Tobia Isa, marketing and communications manager at Aspin Kemp & Associates. Photo: Linkedin.

“Since 2007, AKA has been successfully installing these hybrid systems on boats. Now the new challenge for a lobster fishing boat was to actually go smaller than what we have done in the past,” says Tobia Isa, marketing and communications manager at AKA in an interview with Electric Autonomy.

“[Fishing boats] need a big engine for the times when they’re performing work requiring high power, but sometimes, for example when they’re just slowly going from A to B, most boats don’t really require their large engine to manage these loads,” she explains. “So it’s a good fit for a hybrid system. Generally, vessels with big engines that are not being run at their maximum efficiency point all the time are good hybrid candidates.”

During the times when the vessel doesn’t need extra power, it runs on a smaller diesel engine in combination with batteries and an electric motor. This will enable fuel savings and a reduction in maintenance costs because “you have less running time on the engine,” adds Isa.

Although AKA is focused on building hybrid-electric systems for the lobster fishing vessels at this point in time, the company does see a future for fully electric marine vessels.

“Where we see the best fit for all-electric systems right away in the marine industry is for vessels that have a very predictable operating profile. For example, a ferry that crosses a river from A to B at a fairly constant load. If you plug it in at station A and you plug it in again at station B, it would have enough power to do that crossing every time or you can swap out the battery pack,” says Isa. “The moment you get into unpredictable operating profiles — like with a lobster fishing boat — or when they are far out and a storm comes up and it takes them longer to get home, you have that risk of running out of power.”

Nova Scotia’s market opportunity

Nova Scotia is also looking into developing technology that will reduce its marine carbon footprint.

The recent COVE study, called “Nova Scotia’s Opportunity For Marine Electrification,” states that the province is “primed to implement vessel electrification and grasp potential market opportunities.”

According to COVE’S Nadeau, the province has a “great market base” with a range of both smaller class vessels as well as larger 20-to-30 foot ones, which provides an advantage to electrifying.

“If you look at our report, when we look at Atlantic Canada, it’s over 30,000 vessels that could be electrified.”

Melanie Nadeau, CEO, Centre for Ocean Ventures and Entrepreneurship

“We’re well poised to understand what the market opportunity is and then also looking at the supply chain, we do have a history of building vessels. Now we’ve got the largest shipbuilding contract for defence [and] we’ve got a lot of operators in Nova Scotia, so the supply chain from a shipbuilding point of view makes sense.”

In addition, Nadeau adds that the province is also home to emerging research and expertise in battery technologies at Dalhousie University that can be leveraged.

“There’s a big possibility here for Nova Scotia. If you look at our report, when we look at Atlantic Canada, it’s over 30,000 vessels that could be electrified. Nova Scotia is a portion of that, so we do have a pretty strong local market,” says Nadeau.  

Overcoming barriers

While there is a clear opportunity to electrify marine vessels, one of the barriers the sector will need to overcome is charging infrastructure.

“We know, individually, a lot of the operators that are interested in electrification but it’s very hard for an operator to do single-play charging infrastructure unless they’re pretty big or they have access to their own marine facilities,” says Nadeau.

“Our focus right now is seeing what we could do on charging infrastructure… to propel and accelerate the electrification of vessels and vessels of different classes.”

Regulatory bodies such as Transport Canada will also need to have proper guidelines and provide feedback and certification for these new technologies and use cases so they come to market in a timely way. The concern is to keep operators from “essentially going under while they’re waiting for certification of their vessels,” says Nadeau.

Another challenge is making sure that the battery technology is adequately adapted to marine applications.

“The thing with a vessel is you don’t have a lot of room,” says Nadeau. “The scale of the battery system that you’re putting on board is very important because all of a sudden you won’t have room for your people, depending on what type of use your vessel is.”

Best use cases for electric on water

As the marine sector makes significant strides toward decarbonizing, Nadeau, Isa and MacPherson all realize that not all marine vessels will be suited for electrification.

What the sector might do, says Isa, is take the transition in stages. Before going fully electric there will likely be a transition to a combination of different fuels and diesel with electric components like a hybrid — as with the P.E.I. Fishermen’s Association pilot.

“We think that there will be a move — and this is something that we’re working on on the R&D side — to hydrogen-electric,” says Isa. “Hydrogen-electric would be considered zero-emission too, so it achieves that goal of zero emissions without fully trying to operate just using an electric motor and batteries.”

Conversely, Nadeau thinks electrification will actually be the fastest to market compared to hydrogen because the industry has greater experience with it and knows how to produce electricity.

However, she concludes, “When we think about how we’re ever going to be able to reduce or decarbonize the marine industry… because you have so many different types of vessels, you’ve got to look at electrification and you’ve got to look at hydrogen and ammonia to be able to do that.”

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