More Clean Energy on the Way for California Ferries

Electrifying Ferries: Making the Vision a Reality

SF Bay Ferry is making progress in implementing clean electric propulsion systems and shoreline infrastructure proposed in the 2050 Service Vision plan, thanks to $117 million in state and federal grants.

By Arianna Smith 
Managing Editor
Transit California 

New services are coming online, and long-term upgrades are in the works for the San Francisco Bay Ferry, California’s only major commuter ferry service provider.

In May 2024, the five members of the San Francisco Bay Area Water Emergency Transportation Authority (WETA) Board, which oversees SF Bay Ferry operations, approved the 2050 Service Vision and Expansion Policy to guide the provision of existing and new services for the next 25 years.

“SF Bay Ferry has successfully delivered the region’s fastest-growing and most highly-rated regional transit service, so it’s no surprise to see that there is strong interest in the expansion of the network,” said Jim Wunderman, Chair of the agency’s Board of Directors, after the approval of the plan.“This Service Vision is a reflection of that interest, and of our commitment to aggressively pursue a new golden age of ferries in the Bay Area, where this world-class system is made even better, and is available to even more communities and more riders throughout the region.”

After nearly two years of engaging with stakeholders and local communities for input into the plan, the Board approved a vision that emphasizes increasing access to its mass transit and emergency response services while focusing on its role in addressing and reducing transportation-associated greenhouse gas emissions throughout the Bay Area.“The WETA 2050 Service Vision will grow the ferry network to improve regional connectivity, emergency response and community connections in an equitable, environmentally sustainable, and fiscally responsible manner.”

Electrifying the ferry fleet, as well as putting in place the associated shoreside infrastructure, is a key part of the vision.

The Current State of California Ferry Service Greenhouse Gas Emissions: Further Along the Path to Zero-emissions Than Other Ferry Operators, With More Work to Do

SF Bay Ferry already operates the cleanest ferry system in the United States. In 2018, it became the first major region in the country to power its 17-vessel fleet with renewable diesel propulsion systems. Renewable diesel is not a fossil fuel; it is derived from natural fats, vegetable oils, and grease. Further, thirteen of the vessels meet the strictest U.S. Environmental Protection Agency emissions levels.

Still, even renewable diesel vessels meeting high regulatory standards continue to produce emissions, albeit at lower levels than fossil fuel propelled ferries.

As part of a push to move to zero-emissions vessels, in March 2023, SF Bay Ferry invested in the Sea Change, its first all-electric zero-emissions passenger ferry, through a $3 million grant from the California Air Resources Board and a public-private partnership that included the Golden State Warriors NBA team. Overseen by marine developer SWITCH Maritime, the Sea Change was built and put together in Alameda County and Washington state, with motors powered by hydrogen fuel cells.  

In May 2024, the Coast Guard cleared the Sea Change for WETA’s operation of a six-month pilot for passenger service. “We and our colleagues in the public ferry sector are working with naval architects and shipyards to essentially build a new market in the United States,” said Seamus Murphy, Executive Director of WETA, in a 2023 Transit California article about fleet electrification efforts across transit modalities in the state. The Sea Change pilot project is set to begin in summer 2024.

Ferry Electrification: Why Now, and How?

According to the WETA press release announcing the 2050 Service Vision’s adoption, “The 2050 Service Vision commits the agency to focus on adding zero-emission vessels to its fleet through new construction and conversion of existing vessels, when feasible.”

The adopted vision makes it clear that the purpose of ferry electrification is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, in line with Governor Newsom’s stated 2022 goal to achieve net zero carbon pollution by 2045, as well as the City of San Francisco’s stated 2021 goal to become a net-zero city by 2040.

In addition to procuring electric vessels to operate on all routes that are feasible, the recently adopted vision plan states that WETA will convert power sources on existing vessels to electric, where applicable, and that the agency will put in place charging infrastructure at ferry terminals and maintenance facilities.

Ensuring the feasibility of routes is a critical component to expanding electric-propelled services throughout the Bay Area.

“Batteries are currently heavy and big, and every ounce matters in vessel design when you’re aiming for maintaining speeds and travel times that will get people to choose our service over driving,” said Murphy in 2023.“For shorter routes, smaller lighter batteries can be used without compromising travel time. For our longer routes, we will need some major breakthroughs in battery technology before that’s possible.”

Infrastructure presents challenges as well.“Developing the shoreside electrification infrastructure we’ll need for fleet conversion is an enormous, complex piece of the puzzle,” acknowledged Murphy in 2023.  

Recent government investments in electrification have ensured that WETA has made progress in addressing these challenges.

State and Federal Investments in Electrification: Past, Current, and Future

The implementation of the vision for SF Bay Ferry electrification is currently underway through the Rapid Electric Emission-Free (REEF) Ferry Program, a suite of projects funded by $117 million in state and federal grants. According to the 2024 State of the SF Bay Ferry report, “several REEF projects will commence in 2024 including construction of the first electric ferries along with a new electric float, designed to allow vessels to charge during passenger loading and unloading.” The new ferries will serve San Francisco waterfront neighborhoods, Oakland, and Alameda, while the charging float will serve the Downtown San Francisco Ferry Terminal. Electric charging will also become available on Treasure Island and the Alameda maintenance facility.

Part of the $117 million comes from a notable 2022 $3.4 million federal grant awarded to WETA by the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) to build a zero-emission electric ferry for “short hop” service. “Decarbonizing our transit fleet will be key to reaching San Francisco's bold climate action goal of net-zero emissions by 2040,” said San Francisco Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, Chair of the San Francisco County Transportation Authority, at the time.

More recently, in late 2023, the FTA awarded WETA $16 million to electrify four ferry floats at the Alameda Seaplane, Downtown San Francisco and Main Street Alameda ferry terminals. The project will require structural modification to passenger floats, and it will also require the installation of battery banks, grid connections, and vessel charging equipment.

“Today’s announcement represents our continued record support under the Biden-Harris Administration for passenger ferry service,” FTA Administrator Nury Fernandez said when the award was made public. “The grants help transit agencies make investments to increase reliability, improve connections to other modes of transportation, and bring older ferry systems into a state of good repair.”

WETA selected Wärtsilä Marine Power as the electrification systems integrator for the REEF Ferry Program. Wärtsilä previously completed a project in Norway that had similarities to the needs for a transition to zero emissions system for SF Bay Ferry’s Oakland and Alameda services.

“This is a major project within the maritime sector’s journey towards decarbonization, and we are proud to be a part of it,” said Hanno Schoonman, Director of sales for the AMER region of Wärtsilä. “Wärtsilä joins an industry leading team tasked to develop newbuild battery electric vessels that combine innovative technology and sustainable practices. Wärtsilä is well qualified to provide this project support, and this agreement is a clear endorsement of our strong track record in systems integration and emission-free propulsion.”

What’s Next?

SF Bay Ferry will pursue float conversions for more ferry terminals, electric conversion from renewable diesel of the agency’s existing 400-passenger sized vessels, and the construction or conversion of up to 11 additional small or medium battery electric ferries.

“San Francisco continues to lead the way in addressing climate change through our commitment to working together,” said San Francisco Mayor London Breed of the ferry electrification plans. “Not only will the implementation of the transbay electric ferry service strengthen our City’s 2040 net-zero emission goal by taking a significant step forward, but it will also improve regional transit experiences through increased passenger capacity and efficiency.”

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