The M/V Wenatchee heads to Bainbridge Island from Seattle.

Washington's first hybrid electric ferries are expected to ply Puget Sound's waters as early as 2022, as work continues on an initiative stemming from an executive order Gov. Jay Inslee signed in 2018.

The state has contracted for initial design work for a new electric ferry, as well as converting one of its biggest ferries into a plug-in hybrid electric vessel. Both ferries will carry diesel generators for emergencies.

Electrifying the state's 22-vessel ferry fleet is just starting, but it does not need to take 20 years to complete, Charles Knutson, a senior advisor to Inslee, told Clearing Up.

It took six years for Vigor Shipyards in Seattle to build and deliver four new Olympic-class vessels to Washington State Ferries. The state has extended its contract with Vigor for the first hybrid electric ferry, which will also be a 144-car Olympic-class ship.

Given how quickly new ships can be built, "if you're able to do conversions on top of that, you can get a lot of efficiencies and streamlining" in electrifying the fleet, Knutson said. "We understand that this has to move very quickly."

The state has contracted with Siemens to convert one of WSF's 202-car Jumbo Mark IIs. "It's the largest and dirtiest ferry we have," Knutson said.

The M/V Wenatchee likely will be the first conversion. State lawmakers allocated money for the conversion in House Bill 1160 during the 2019 legislative session.

The bill also authorized converting the other two Jumbo Mark IIs—the Puyallup and the Tacoma—although funds have not yet been allocated for those conversions.

The Wenatchee's conversion will be paid for with money from the federal Volkswagen mitigation settlement. Washington received $112.7 million of the $2.7 billion mitigation trust fund VW agreed to bankroll. In October, Washington earmarked up to $35 million of its share to pay for converting the Wenatchee.

Converting a single Jumbo Mark II will cut WSF's fuel consumption by 400,000 gallons of diesel a year. During the ferry's service life, that will prevent 172,000 tons of carbon dioxide emissions and 1,540 tons of nitrogen oxide emissions, according to the state's Department of Ecology.

WSF burns more than 18 million gallons of diesel fuel each year, making it the state's largest diesel consumer. The three Jumbo Mark IIs burn 26 percent of that total, according to the Washington State Department of Transportation.

The ferries comprise 6 percent of working boats on Puget Sound, but they account for 60 percent of diesel pollution particles and 50 percent of greenhouse gas emissions from marine traffic on the waterway, according to Inslee's office.

"Converting the biggest, dirtiest ferries in the fleet is a huge milestone in our efforts to decarbonize the state and fulfill our obligation to help defeat climate change," Inslee said in a statement announcing the money for the conversion. "In addition to reducing emissions, moving to an all-electric ferry fleet will save taxpayers money on ferry operating costs, virtually eliminate engine noise and vibration that can hurt orca whales, and improve reliability of service."

Lawmakers have earmarked $187 million for the new Olympic-class ferry. They authorized four more hybrid electric Olympic-class ferries, but no money has been allocated yet.

Many details, including the battery systems and charging infrastructure, are still being worked out by the state and contractors, Knutson said.

The ferries typically have four diesel generators; the hybrids will have one or two. "It's really just for emergencies—if you are dead in water and need to move a vessel, or if there's an ambulance onboard and you need extra power," he said.

In some sense, replacing diesel generatorswith battery systems "is sort of plug-and-play, because the ferries already are diesel-electric. We're simply swapping out diesel for battery," Knutson said

The first two hybrids will serve routes short enough they can make the crossing on battery power alone, he said.

The Wenatchee would run on the Seattle-Bainbridge Island route. The new Olympic hybrid would run on the Mukilteo-Clinton route, which is short enough the state currently does not plan to install charging infrastructure on the Mukilteo side. Electrifying the Clinton terminal on Whidbey Island is included in WSF's 2040 Long Range Plan.

Electric ferries are not limited to short runs, though. The battery-powered ferry Ellen started serving a 22-mile route in Denmark in August.

The charging infrastructure will have several megawatts capacity and cost several millions of dollars at each terminal, Knutson said.

WSF is working with Puget Sound Energy, Snohomish County PUD and Seattle City Light on installing charging infrastructure at the Bainbridge, Mukilteo and Seattle terminals, respectively.

Inslee hopes the hybrid-electric ferries will spur further electrification in Washington.

"My hope is that these actions have a cascading effect," the governor said in a statement from Dec. 17. "If we can electrify a vessel that big, it might help people feel that a used electric vehicle is within reach. Ferries are an icon of our state—they are on every postcard with Mount Rainier and orcas—and it's time we cleaned them up."

Contributing Editor

Dan has covered stories from Seattle to Tbilisi; spent time with the AP, Everett Daily Herald and Christian Science Monitor; and was twice a member of a team nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. He and his wife have three young children and live in Seattle.