Electric cars are humming all around; airlines are getting bullish on electric planes. The next mode of transit to make waves? Battery-powered boats.
Destinations the world over are clamoring for cleaner forms of energy—so it’s no surprise they’re embracing electrified transit as one of the quickest paths to that goal. The sector accounts for about a quarter of annual global greenhouse gas emissions; ships alone are responsible for nearly three percent of that, or about a billion metric tons of CO2 each year.
To avert the worst outcomes of climate change, the United Nations has set critical global targets for net-zero global emissions by 2050. In June 2021, the U.N.’s International Maritime Organization, which oversees shipping regulations, adopted short-term measures to reduce carbon intensity of all ships by 40 percent by 2030. Meanwhile, a fresh infusion of funding—like President Biden’s 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law in the U.S.—is giving a financial boost to innovations around electric ferry technology.
Beyond reducing air and water pollution, electrified passenger ferries tout a host of benefits for local communities. New ferry service can help ease congestion on roads and existing public transit routes, while making transit cleaner, faster, or more direct.
“An electric battery ferry is a zero-emission option for commuters who may instead have to take a car across a bridge in gridlocked traffic,” says Elise Sturrup, a marine researcher at the nonprofit International Council on Clean Transportation, who has studied electric ferry feasibility.
For travelers, e-ferry offerings are not only practical, but can be fun, offering unique and scenic viewpoints. More waterborne routes can potentially offer an antidote to overtourism, too, by encouraging visitors to explore less well-trodden locales; checking out Oslo’s suburbs, for instance, is made all the more enticing when sailing through its fjords on a commuter ferry. They can also maximize rider comfort by removing noise, fumes, and vibrations, bonuses which benefit local marine life.
For the burgeoning electric ferry, or e-ferry, marketplace, business is brisk: Market researcher Fortune Business Insights projects that by 2027, the electric ships market will be valued at nearly $11 billion—nearly double that of 2019.
The market’s growth has also been boosted by recent advancements in rechargeable battery technology, with batteries getting lighter, more compact, and more energy-dense. “It’s the energy density that’s key,” explains Dr. Linda Gaines, an environmental scientist and systems analyst at the Argonne National Laboratory, a U.S. Department of Energy-affiliated research center in Washington, D.C. “Volume is what’s most limited onboard a vessel.”
In addition to battery safety, she says, which has improved under marine conditions, the technology has also become more cost-efficient for operators; it’s cheaper to charge and maintain electric motors than internal combustion engines. Charging times, while connected to shore-side power in port, have also been reduced, with many modern batteries now capable of charging in under 10 minutes.
“Ferries are excellent candidates for battery electricity,” says Sturrup, citing their shorter routes, smaller ship sizes, and route consistency, which allows for regular access to charging points.
Of course, there are a few caveats. E-ferries don’t achieve maximum benefits if the electric grid they’re tapping at port isn’t powered by green energy itself. There are also environmental impact considerations around the development and disposal of the batteries themselves. But, says Gaines, “Electric propulsion for marine vessels is almost always cleaner than combustion.”
Europe has been leading the charge on the e-ferry revolution, particularly in Scandinavia, which already leads the world in electric car use. Among the standouts: The 30-passenger Candela P-12 shuttle, which begins testing in Sweden this summer. Set to be the world’s fastest electric ship, with speeds of up to 35 miles per hour, the hydrofoil ferry service is set to launch next spring, providing service between Stockholm and its suburbs. In Denmark, the e-ferry Ellen—the world’s longest-range fully electric ferry route, at 22 nautical miles—debuted in 2019, transporting cars and up to 200 passengers between the Danish islands of Ærø and Als.
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But for sheer size and scope, Norway’s e-ferry landscape reigns supreme. According to data provided by the country’s tourism board, the coastline-rich country now claims more than 50 electric ferries, including the world’s first all-electric car ferry, the 350-passenger MF Ampere, which launched in 2015, and the 600-passenger Bastø Electric—the world’s largest all-electric passenger and car ferry—which services Norway’s busiest ferry route across the Oslo Fjord.
One of Norway’s buzziest newcomers, Hyke plans to launch its 50-passenger, picture-window-clad “smart city ferries”—which are partly solar-powered and can wirelessly charge while docked—in Fredrikstad, about an hour outside of Oslo, by May. The company will also deliver and operate four ferries along the Seine during Paris’s 2024 Olympics. “We see the Olympics as a unique opportunity to show that fighting climate change can be both cool and clean, while also being cost-efficient and accessible to all,” says Hyke CEO Bjørn Utgård.
Elsewhere in Europe, Northern Ireland is readying to pilot a high-speed hydrofoil e-ferry in 2024, designed by the Belfast-based company Artemis Technologies, while Lisbon received the first of 10 planned electric ferries this past March; travelers to Croatia can expect to island-hop from Split via e-ferry by next year.
In Asia, ambitious e-ferry projects are happening at mass-scale: Bangkok has ordered 30 new electric ferries, while Kochi, India, and its surrounding islands will be serviced by 78 electrified vessels (the first of which launched in 2022), in what’s already being billed as the world’s largest electric ferry fleet. Down in New Zealand, the Southern Hemisphere’s first fully electric passenger ferry launched in Wellington last year; the Australian ferry manufacturing company Incat is now at work building the world’s largest e-ferry, a 2,100-passenger battery-powered behemoth set to debut in 2025, to transport passengers between Argentina and Uruguay. The vessel, says Incat CEO Tim Burnell, “will have the lowest carbon footprint of any large, internationally operating ferry in the world.”
Closer to U.S. shores, tourist ferries in popular spots like Alcatraz Island, California, off the coast of San Francisco, and New York’s Niagara Falls have gone electric in recent years. Next year, California’s Bay Area will see an e-ferry run between Tiburon and Angel Island, and New York City plans to launch one between Brooklyn and Manhattan. And more are still to come, according to Amy Thompson, a spokesperson for the American Public Transportation Association, thanks to an influx of federal funding—further proof that when it comes to riding the wave of the future, clean and green leads the way.