Construction Begins for First Commercial Hydrogen-Powered Ferry

Rendering courtesy GGZEM / Incat Crowther

Published Nov 9, 2018 10:15 AM by The Maritime Executive

A consortium of federal, state and private partners has begun the construction of a new, first-of-its-kind ferry powered by hydrogen fuel cells. The 70-foot catamaran design is being built by Bay Ship & Yacht Co. of Alameda, California for Golden Gate Zero Emission Marine (GGZEM), with funding from the state's California Climate Investments program. It is intended as a demonstrator project to showcase the potential of hydrogen fuel cell power.  

"Today's ceremony symbolizes more than the start of construction of a single vessel, it marks the start of a new movement in the maritime community.  Operators all over the world are seeing that hydrogen fuel cell electric drivetrains can provide both environmental and economic advantages," said Dr. Joseph W. Pratt, the CEO of GGZEM, at the keel laying on Thursday. 

The Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD) is administering the project, and local ferry company Red and White Fleet will handle marine operations. Other key partners include BAE Systems, Incat Crowther, Hexagon Composites, the Port of San Francisco, Sandia National Laboratories, and fuel cell manufacturer Hydrogenics. The latter firm is also supplying the fuel cells for a laboratory-scale marine propulsion testbed used by ABB and research organization SINTEF Ocean. 

The new vessel, the Water-Go-Round, is expected to begin its operations next year on a three month trial in San Francisco Bay. This initial operating period will allow scientists from Sandia National Laboratories to assess its performance and gather data for the California Air Resources Board (CARB). Ultimately, Red and White Fleet intends to use the Water-Go-Round as the first of several vessels from GGZEM as part of their strategy to build a fully zero emission fleet by 2025.

"The technology for zero pollution is here today and we are honored to be the operator of the Water-Go-Round," said Tom Escher, president of Red and White Fleet. "I'm convinced it will prove the feasibility of hydrogen fuel cell application on all maritime vessels . . . California is going to prove to the global shipping community that hydrogen fuel cells offer zero pollution for the benefit of the entire world."

Hydrogen propulsion's economic competitiveness and emissions profile vary depending upon the source of the fuel. Almost all commercially-produced hydrogen is currently derived from natural gas or coal gas. Due to the carbon dioxide created by the refining process, its well-to-propeller CO2 emissions can be higher than those from heavy fuel oil, according to a recent review by DNV GL. 

By contrast, hydrogen produced using renewable electricity and water electrolysis is nearly emissions-free - but can be very costly. The feasibility study that preceded the Water-Go-Round project found that renewably-produced hydrogen would cost far more than diesel for Red and White Fleet's location and operating profile (not including capital costs). 

Dr. Pratt says that the fuel supplier for Water-Go-Round has not yet been selected, but the consortium estimated the project's GHG emissions using a carbon intensity value of about 88 gCO2e/MJ - seven percent less than CARB's estimate for diesel, and about one-third less than its estimate for conventional liquid hydrogen. Pratt suggests that GGZEM hopes to achieve much lower emissions. 

"Renewable hydrogen is available today, and I expect the cost of 100% renewable hydrogen to be decreasing drastically, to the point where it is cheaper than conventionally-produced hydrogen," said Pratt. "The equipment on the boat can handle the transition to 100% renewable hydrogen without any changes. This gives the operator the flexibility to separately choose . . . when to transition to a zero emission fuel."