Let’s make electric ferries part of the recovery plan for Quebec
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Jun 9, 2020
Christopher Ralph

With the province’s expertise in batteries, EVs and ship building, and ready-made local markets, the ingredients for a Quebec electric ferry cluster are already in place

Norway’s electric ferries could serve as a model for Quebec industry. Source: Norled

With the province’s expertise in batteries, EVs and ship building, and ready-made local markets, the ingredients for a Quebec electric ferry cluster are already in place

Quebec has more electric vehicles on its roads than any other province. Municipalities in Quebec, like Montreal and Laval, have been actively deploying electric buses into their fleets. Quebec City and Gatineau are also exploring the idea of electric light rail. The provincial government has been encouraging electrification through rebates and incentives for consumer transportation and fleets by offering the most generous subsidies in Canada. The result is that Quebec has become a leader in electric vehicle development, manufacturing and ownership. 

With this incredible leadership and experience in electrification, Quebec has an opportunity to take another step in this direction by developing expertise in electric ferries and maritime vessels.

Ferries widely used

One of the most important geographical aspects of Quebec is its incredible shoreline along both coasts of the St. Lawrence River. Nearly eight million Quebecois live in the corridor between Montreal, the Côte-Nord and Gaspé. The result of that geography is that Quebec uses a lot of ferries to move people and products from one city to another.  

As an example, Quebec City is linked to Lévis by a ferry. This is an important transportation link between two large cities in Canada’s seventh largest urban area. These ferries are a considerable part of the province’s transportation infrastructure, economy — and also its greenhouse gas emissions. 

The fact that its ferries are a source of GHG emissions is known in Quebec. The government has announced that it will be procuring newer ferries that will rely on liquified natural gas (LNG) as a fuel source. The Société des traversiers du Québec (STQ) says that the conversion to natural gas will reduce costs and lower greenhouse gas emissions by 25%.

This is a first step and should be encouraged. However, a 25% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions should not be the fleet’s final target. Maritime transportation creates other harmful emissions, specifically nitrogen and sulfur oxides, in addition to carbon dioxide. Indeed, last year a spokesperson for the STQ confirmed that full electrification was an option. Given that Quebec is endowed with the skills, resources and workforce to expand its leadership in this area, it seems ripe for investment and innovation. 

Norway an example

As an example of what a green recovery in Quebec could look like, we can look to Europe.

Norway is another jurisdiction with a similar population distribution to Quebec, in that its major cities are all situated along the coast. It is also the jurisdiction with the highest adoption rate of electric vehicles in Europe, similar to Quebec’s position in Canada. In 2015, Norled, a Norwegian ferry company, began operating the world’s first all-electric car ferry. Three years later, Norway announced a plan to create an emissions-free zone on all of its fjords with world heritage designation, and since then, other Norwegian ferry operators, including Fjord1, which operates one of the country’s largest transportation networks, have bought electric ferries or announced plans to electrify their fleets. 

Scandinavia is not alone. The City of New York, divided up over several islands, has placed an order for an electric ferry as part of a wider initiative by the city to electrify its public transportation fleet. In Canada, British Columbia and Ontario have started to acquire hybrid electric ferries as well. 

Quebec should look to lead

Quebec should seize this opportunity and look to lead Canada on maritime electrification. The province is unique in that it is home to a network of both academic specialists on electric vehicles working for groups such as the Innovative Vehicle Institute, as well as private sector producers like Lion and Novabus. Quebec also has a network of domestic shipyards capable of producing ferries, notably the Chantier Davie located in Lévis. Davie has experience installing Wärtsilä electric power systems onto both conventional diesel ferries, as well as alternative propulsion technologies like LNG ferries. Davie delivered the MV Armand-Imbeau II ferry to the STQ in 2018 that featured electric drive capabilities on an LNG platform.  

While Quebec could design and build electric ferries for its own provincial use, there are plenty of other jurisdictions in Canada that could also become customers. All four Atlantic Provinces operate ferries, alongside the City of Halifax which operates ferries as part of its public transportation network.

Quebec could also become a national leader in demonstrating cost saving opportunities from maritime electrification. While today the price of diesel and natural gas is decreasing in an increasingly volatile market, ferries are long-term investments, designed to be used for many decades after their initial delivery. As a result, the long-term impacts of carbon taxation and cap-and-trade on the price of both diesel and natural gas as a fuel source will become an increasing burden relative to the price of electricity. Likewise, the price of electricity in Quebec is low relative to other jurisdictions in Canada.

Concrete market potential

There is a concrete and demonstrable market potential in the electrification of ferries. They travel short distances and dock in populated ports frequently where there is ample charging potential. Coupling this with a renewable energy source — like Quebec’s immense reserve of hydroelectricity — offers exceptional potential to improve air quality, while also saving on fuel costs and investing in domestic clean technology.

The world is going to look a lot different post COVID-19. How people move around the province is going to change, along with their consumption habits. Despite this change, as long as the St. Lawrence River separates the people of Quebec ferries will always be a requirement.

Christopher Ralph has worked in environmental policy for nearly a decade, for companies such as Canada Post, Envari and Hydro Ottawa. He has studied climate change policy at University of Toronto and Université de Québec Téluq.

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