After Tom Escher took over his family’s century-old ferry company in 1997, he wanted to buy a zero-emissions vessel that could whisk tourists around San Francisco without spewing harmful pollutants. Escher, who is 71, said he worried about the health of his four grandchildren and the environment they’d live in.
“Our boats were getting greener, and we were cleaning up, but I said, ‘Are we doing the best we can?’” Escher recalled.
A few years ago, he began searching in earnest for a fossil fuel-free ship, but he quickly hit a wall. Even as battery-powered cars and rooftop solar panels proliferated on land, the maritime industry had been slow to embrace clean energy at sea.
An innovative ferry project could soon change that.
On Monday, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) announced a $3 million grant to help build a hydrogen fuel cell ferry. Once built, it would be be the first of its kind in the United States, and the first commercial hydrogen fuel cell ferry in the world.
The planned vessel, named Water-Go-Round, would carry 84 passengers and stretch 70 feet long. Construction is expected to start early this fall in Alameda, California, and the vessel is slated to hit the water a year later.
A similar narrative is already playing out with battery-powered ferries, after Norway launched a fully electric car ferry in 2015.
Dan Berentson, the director of public works in Skagit County, in northwest Washington, said his team is closely following developments in Scandinavia, where more electric ferries are expected to ply the fjords. Skagit County officials are now hoping to build their own electric boat to replace their county’s clunky 39-year-old ferry. If all goes to plan, it could launch in 2020.
“Our hope is that the industry will embrace this,” Berentson said.