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Hybrid vessels lead the way, but U.S. tax incentives are needed

Aug 22, 2012 01:38 PM

In 2009, even before the general public had a chance to ride the vessel, I was lucky enough to take a trip on the first hybrid ferry in U.S. history — Hornblower Hybrid. I had been asked to speak at the Passenger Vessel Association’s MariTrends conference in San Francisco, and as part of the conference was invited to take a tour on the boat. That night an old friend of mine from California Maritime Academy and I watched as the deck hands let the lines go, and the 149-passenger boat eased off of Pier 3 smoothly and quietly. There was no belch of diesel exhaust as we slowly made our way out into the harbor on battery power. The new, low-emission diesel generators took over as we cruised out near Angel Island, skirted under the Golden Gate Bridge and headed back. As we neared the dock at the end of the trip, only the sound of the light breeze and city traffic filled the air after the captain switched again to battery power. As professional mariners, my friend and I were impressed that there was no noise and no diesel exhaust while we were undocking and docking. On the way back to my hotel, I realized that I’d just witnessed the beginning of a new paradigm in the maritime industry — the time of the hybrids.

The development and use of hybrid vessels is one way the maritime industry is reducing the amount of air pollution it causes — and it’s created a market that savvy companies are taking advantage of. Hornblower Cruises and Events retrofitted an existing dive vessel to create Hornblower Hybrid. Equipped with solar panels and wind turbines, it is capable of running for an hour strictly on battery power. The company was able to win the contract with this hybrid design because the National Park Service, which operates Alcatraz Island, required a ferry that would put out zero emissions at the dock when landing or getting underway. Considering that well over a million tourists visit the island each year, building a hybrid ferry was a good business move, with the boat itself a bit of a tourist attraction. On the East Coast New York Hornblower Hybrid, a 600-passenger ferry, was built with similar renewable energy technology including hydrogen fuel cells, and is now also in operation.

The emergence of hybrid commercial vessels has come about, to a large extent, because the authorities have begun to clamp down on maritime air pollution. In 2009, California’s Air Resources Board began enforcing its own emission rules, and now the International Maritime Organization (IMO) has gotten involved as well. The IMO has designated the East, West, and Gulf coasts of the U.S. as Emission Control Areas (ECAs). Beginning on Aug. 1, 2012, vessels in these designated ECAs will be subject to increasingly stringent requirements regarding stack exhaust pollutants that require the use of cleaner burning fuel. By 2016, new ships working in the ECAs must also be equipped with less-polluting diesel engines. In addition, the IMO has directed that Ship Energy Efficiency Management Plans, designed to reduce fuel consumption and ship emissions, will be required on applicable seagoing vessels worldwide in 2013.

In 2009 Foss Maritime, taking into account the regulatory trend, put into service its first hybrid tug — Carolyn Dorothy (American Tugboat Review 2009). Though it looks like the other Dolphin-class z-drive tugs in the fleet, Carolyn Dorothy is equipped with a full bank of rechargeable gel-cell batteries, and can idle at the dock or in the harbor waiting for a ship without so much as a whiff of diesel exhaust. The boat can also cruise at around 6 knots on batteries with no emissions. The project was such a success that asecond Foss hybrid tug, Campbell Foss, (see story, Page 18) was also put into service in Southern California this year. The company calculates that by using these hybrid tugs it will save 100,000 gallons of fuel and keep 1,340 tons of CO2 stack emissions from entering the atmosphere each year. The president of Foss has made it clear that the company “is committed to hybrid technology.”

Overseas, both Toyota and Nissan have not only embraced hybrid technology in their automobiles, but have now extended that commitment to their ships. In 2009 Toyota launched the world’s first hybrid car carrier, Auriga Leader. It is a 656-foot ship, fitted with 328 solar panels that cut emissions and save fuel. Nissan’s Nichioh Maru is also a hybrid car carrier. A newly built ship launched in January, it has 281 solar panels on board, along with an advanced hull design to reduce friction, plus LED lighting. Nissan expects that Nichioh Maru’s energy efficiencies should cut fuel costs, at current bunker prices, by around $750,000 per year — and reduce stack emissions by 4,200 tons of CO2 yearly.

Unfortunately, unlike the generous tax benefits given to those who bought hybrid automobiles, the United States government provides little if any incentive for U.S. shipowners to build and operate hybrid vessels. China now offers a 50 percent cut in vessel taxes for domestic companies that operate reduced-emission boats and ships. Singapore offers a 50 percent reduction in registration fees and a 20 percent reduction in the tonnage tax for all Singapore-flag ships that exceed the IMO’s minimum energy efficiency requirements. I would like to see the U.S. government give vessel owners and builders comparable tax incentives.

Although the use of hybrid commercial ships and boats is in its infancy, already operation of the vessels has proven economically and environmentally viable — and politically astute. “Green shipping” is no longer just a buzzword. As companies embrace not only hybrid vessels but also other new “green” options, I hope that the perception many have of the maritime industry as a wanton polluter will evolve to one where we are considered leaders in the use of environmentally appropriate technology.

Till next time I wish you all smooth sailin’.

Capt. Kelly Sweeney lives near Seattle. You can contact him at captsweeney@professionalmariner.com.

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