Tourists to Niagara Falls can now take fully electric ferries past the famous falls. The two ferries debuted in New York on October 6, powered by locally generated hydropower. Your batteries can be recharged in just seven minutes as passengers get on and off the ships.
The first ships of their kind
The new boats, operated by Maid of the Mist, are among the first of their kind to sail US waterways. The first fully electric passenger and car ferry in the US departed from the banks of the Alabama River in 2019. These new, eco-friendly trips are part of a global trend towards the electrification of passenger ships.
"The electrification of these two brand new tour boats is an example of how we can electrify our economy, which is good for our communities, our health and our climate," said Gil Quiniones, president and CEO of the New York Power Authority, in a statement. The New York Power Authority and New York State Parks worked with Maid of the Mist to get the boats afloat, while automation company ABB fitted the ships with battery packs.
The Maid of the Mist boat tours at Niagara Falls will now be aboard all-electric ships.
Image: NY State Parks
The maritime industry, which has a carbon footprint similar to that of aviation, is trying to curb planetary heating emissions from traditionally diesel-powered fleets. However, ferries only make up a small fraction of the carbon pollution from transport. They pumped out around 11.6 million tons of greenhouse gases in 2018, roughly as much as three coal-fired power plants could produce in a year and not even a third of the annual carbon footprint of a major airline like Delta (before the pandemic). .
However, the diesel powered boats can affect local air quality as they also emit soot and nitrogen oxides, which promote smog. As ferries travel the same routes over and over again every day, pollution is increasing in the surrounding communities.
These frequent, relatively short journeys make ferries ideal candidates for replacing diesel engines with rechargeable batteries. Nordic countries with long maritime traditions have led the trend. The world's first service for electric cars and passenger ferries began in Norway in 2015. Finland upgraded its oldest operational ferry in 2017 to become fully electric. Since then, electric passenger ships have also appeared in Denmark, Spain, India and Thailand. More than 70 percent of global ferry traffic could become all-electric, Anil Srivastava, CEO of Swiss battery manufacturer Leclanche SA, told Bloomberg Green in January.
"We still have some time before we see an electric boat revolution in the US, but the rest of the world is doing that," said Patrick Finn, marine technology analyst at Thetius. The US is catching up because it is more expensive to build boats in the US than anywhere else in the world, Finn said. Why the high price? He refers to the controversial Jones Act, a centuries-old law that requires that boats that carry goods between two US ports are made in America. Significant policy changes and investment would be required to accelerate the transition to electric ships.
There is still a long way to go before electric boats take over the seas
There would also need to be major infrastructure updates to fully electrify the ferry fleets. The aging network designed for fossil fuels needs to be revised to include more renewable energies. In busy ports, you need charging stations and enough electricity. The Niagara boat tours are fortunate enough to pass a powerful source of clean energy on every trip – the falls generate enough electricity for 3.8 million households. "This is basically the perfect application (for all-electric ships)," says John Nuszkowski, associate professor of mechanical engineering at the University of North Florida, who grew up not far from Niagara Falls.
Battery technology is not yet advanced enough to replace diesel engines in cargo ships and larger ocean-going vessels. Hybrid boats or those that run on alternative fuels hold even more promise when it comes to reducing pollution at sea. There is still a long way to go before electric boats take over the seas. But ferries are starting to steer the world towards a greener horizon.