Europe’s largest ferry nation Norway is already reaping the benefits of replacing an aging diesel fleet with electric and hybrid ferries. Will the rest of the world get on board? A new study makes the case for, Italy, Greece and the UK.
According to a new study, there is massive potential in the use of electric and hybrid ferries in Europe, where some 800,000 tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions can be sharply cut by investing in shore power, hybridization, and fully electric ferries for certain routes.
Ferries play a vital role in transport, but at the same time they have a negative impact on the environment, causing harmful emissions and noise pollution. With electrification and hybridization, however, ferries can become part of the solutions to decarbonize maritime transport, which causes around 3 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.
The study, titled Decarbonizing maritime transport: A study on the Electrification of the European Ferry Fleet, identifies the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy and Greece as heavily reliant on ferry transport, accounting for 35 percent of European ferry emissions. But that can change. And what holds true for these four countries, holds true for the rest of the world’s seafaring nations as well.
Norway had caused an additional 17 percent of emissions in the past, but has since been making rapid progress decarbonizing their seas with over 70 fully or hybrid electric ferries – and even more under construction.
Just six years after it put Ampere, the world’s first fully electric car ferry into operation, Norway has become a trailblazer in the use of greener ferries. And Siemens Energy has been a key player, says Bjørn Einar Brath, Managing Director at Siemens Energy Norway, in creating this “ferry tale” in the fjords.
“We’ve gained a lot of experience,” says Brath, “delivering batteries, power electronics and electrical systems to many vessels. The opportunities green ferry technologies bring are ready to use – there’s no need to wait and see.”
The company has benefited directly from their experience and success in Norway, where it supplied batteries and all control systems to Color Hybrid, the world’s largest plug-in hybrid ship, sailing between Norway and Sweden.
And they played the major role in supplying the electrical storage solution and power management system for the largest all-electric ferry, operated by the ferry company Bastø Fosen on the busy Oslo Fjord. “Electric ferries,” says CEO Øyvind Lund, “mean big cuts in local emissions, less noise and more reliable operations.”
The study, which was carried out by the Norwegian environmental organization Bellona Foundation in cooperation with Siemens Energy, highlights areas for Europe’s biggest reduction opportunities. For example, the port of Piraeus alone is responsible for a third of Greece’s emissions at berth. In Germany, only 15 out of 105 ferries are larger vessels, but account for 60 percent of emissions.
“The need for action is particularly great in southern Europe, with ferries in Italy emitting by far the most carbon dioxide emissions in Europe, while Greece is number two,” explains Paolo Menotti, Vice President South West Europe at Siemens Energy. Menotti outlines three solutions to be implemented in parallel: refitting the existing fleet, ordering new ferries, and electrification of the port infrastructure.
“If ferries in ports can be connected to the power grid instead of using diesel generators to keep systems going, this not only reduces emissions considerably, but also leads to better air quality and quiet for the population,” says Menotti, referring to the study’s calculations that ferries emit an average of 26 percent of their overall emissions while in ports – “in Greece it’s as much as 37 percent.”
Many European ferries are also quite old, so in the coming years, vessels will need to be replaced. Menotti underlines: “The time to act is now in order to introduce solutions for a zero-emission sea transport system.”
According to the report: “Combining shore power build-out, full electrification of shorter routes, and hybridization of all routes, the potential for emission reduction is estimated at 800,000 tons of CO2 for the four countries analyzed.”
This means that there are flexible solutions for different journeys and, depending on the length of the route, different technologies may be considered. For example, fully electric vessels can replace older ones on journeys of up to one hour. For longer routes, hybrid solutions are more suitable, allowing for electric operation during the first hour of travel and while in port.
In the future, hybrid engines will also be able to run on green e-Fuels such as methanol or ammonia, further increasing decarbonization. “Hybrid electrification,” the study demonstrates, “does not automatically cause fossil fuel lock-in. For longer routes hybridization will likely be both necessary and efficient with zero-emission fuels, providing steady operations for fuel cells, peak shaving or other applications.”
As a provider of flexible overall solutions, Paolo Menotti explains that Siemens Energy works closely with ferry operators to match technology with both short- and long-term decarbonization goals. “As we’ve already shown before in Norway, we can adapt our systems to our customers’ needs.”
The solutions available to Europe and the model Norway suggest an untapped potential for the use of electric ferries in the rest of the world. According to the shipping association Interferry, the ferry industry is “similar in size to the commercial airline industry,” comprised of 15,400 vessels that transported around 4.27 billion passengers and 373 million vehicles in 2019 (the world’s airlines carried 4.5 billion passengers that year). In other words, the potential for global emissions reduction is enormous.
Already ferry operators worldwide are taking advantage of electrification. In the United States, for example, Washing State Ferries is transitioning three Jumbo Mark II-class ferries, which consume 5 million gallons of diesel per year, to near zero-emission vessels with electric propulsion systems (EPS). KiwiRail in New Zealand will also be using EPS to add two new environmentally friendly ferries to their fleet. And Kochi Metro Rail Ltd. in India will use the country’s first fleet of 23 e-Ferries as part of their commitment to decarbonization and environmental sustainability.
There are several industrial factors that make Norway an ideal environment for decarbonizing shipping, explains Bjørn Einar Brath. However, the development only accelerated when the government made the transformation of the sector a priority and required companies to meet climate goals. At that point, green technology became a condition for public tenders: “The shift in policy was a real game changer,” says Brath.
Funding by governmental agencies allows the necessary investments to renew and decarbonize ferries, which in turn enables shipyards and suppliers, including Siemens Energy, to create a lot of local know-how and jobs.
For operators, the changeover brings more energy-efficient vessel designs and a significant reduction in fuel consumption, while at the same time, the study reports, “maintenance costs generally are lower, with service intervals and the expected service life of motors and components both becoming longer.”
“The initial investment for electric and hybrid technology,” says Menotti, “may seem high, but not when we look at complete life cycle costs.”
Factors that benefit both decarbonization targets and local economies are, of course, met with great interest in other countries. The governments of the four nations analyzed in the study already make use of different legislative options and funding that could be modeled elsewhere to promote electrification of shipping. The United Kingdom, for example, has set a goal of reducing emissions from ferries to zero by 2050.
And in all four countries, several national and EU funding programs aim to sponsor and thereby speed up ferry projects and investment in the electrification of ports. “The opportunities in Europe are great,” says Brath, “but we can also see a big interest in the USA, where Siemens Energy has already delivered components for ferries.”
Moreover, as the technologies advance in the future, they could also be applied to even bigger vessels. So, with the right political and economic incentives, Norway’s “ferry tale” may soon be told in other places, too.
Niels Anner is an independent journalist based in Copenhagen, who writes on business, science, technology and society in Northern Europe.