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The Energy Transition
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Ferries are a vital part of several countries’ transportation systems, carrying millions of passengers a year, connecting main roads and sailing to stunning tourism destinations. So why do so many nations have old-timers at work polluting the air, crews and passengers with tons of diesel emissions? It’s time to discuss the e-ferry (r)evolution! 

The first zero emission electrical car and passenger ferry

To start, let me take you on a short time travel to the past: Norway, Sognefjord, May 2015. The Sognefjord is Norway's longest and deepest fjord with sheer mountainsides of over 1,000 meters. However, on this day it was not the majestic landscape that took the attention of locals and visitors on shore and on water. It was the Ampere, a brand new car ferry that smoothly departed with a deck full of cars and passengers on its first 20 minutes commercial trip between the two villages of Lavik and Oppedal, north of Bergen. The clue: There was no noise, no smell. The Ampere moved forward silent like a crocodile. I witnessed the world’s first electrical and zero emission car and passenger ferry powered by batteries that had finally entered service.

It was an impressive sight even for me, an experienced marine industry engineer. To me and a team of dedicated Siemens colleagues the Ampere was the result of years and months of hard work and innovation. It symbolized a turning point. My vision of an electrically-powered ferry sailing across Norway’s fjords just became a reality. I realized that with the Ampere starting into service we would be able to prove: The diesel engine for ferries is a technology of the past. The ferry (r)evolution will be electric!

How to overcome the grid challenge on the shore

So where did it all start? The Ampere project was the result of a competition launched by Norway’s Ministry of Transport and Communications in 2011. The winner would be awarded the concession for the ferry link between the villages of Lavik and Oppedal in the Sognefjord. So we got together with the Fjellstrand shipyard and the ship owner Norled and developed a concept that considered not only the technology aboard but could also eliminate one of the major challenges on the shore: the weak grid.

The grid was designed to provide electricity only to a sparsely populated region. Consuming that much energy from a medium-voltage system like the shoreside grid to recharge the ferry batteries would have stopped the washing and coffee machines in all surrounding households. Therefore, this was certainly not an option.

Ship owner Norled operates on the ferry link across Sognefjord between Lavik and Oppedal, Norway. 

So we came up with a simple solution: Ampere receives its power from banks of batteries at each terminal. While the ferry is gone the dockside batteries recharge by gradually drawing modest amounts of power from the grid. Still, the ferry only has ten minutes for the whole process – the time passengers and vehicles need to disembark. So we decided to install one lithium-ion battery at each pier to serve as a buffer. The 260-kWh unit supplies electricity to the ferry while it waits. Otherwise we would have had to expand the entire grid at high costs, let alone the long waiting period.

On board the ferry we installed an electric propulsion system called BlueDrive PlusC. It includes a battery and steering system, thruster control for the propellers, an energy management system and an integrated alarm and monitoring system. The integrated automation systems control and monitor the machineries and auxiliaries on the ferry and are connected via the field bus system Profibus to all other subsystems.

Environmentally friendly –  and profitable!

Today Ampere has travelled a distance of five times around the globe. This is ample proof that the technology is working. It annually cuts down the use of one million liters of diesel and offsets 2640t of carbon dioxide and 37t of nitrogen oxide emissions compared to conventional ferries plying on the same route. And more importantly: Watching and analyzing Ampere’s performance during operation we were able to prove that e-ferries are not only environmentally friendly, but also profitable!

A Siemens study we published in 2015 in cooperation with Bellona, an international environmental NGO foundation, shows that it would be profitable to replace 70 percent of the fossil-fueled ferries currently in service in Norway to either battery or hybrid propulsion.

Our research concludes that from the 180 ferries that cross the Norwegian fjords:

  • 84 ferries are suitable for all-electric operation.
  • 43 ferries are appropriate for hybrid technology.
  • The total cost for such technology replacement is ca. NOK 3.5 billion or € 350 million  (including infrastructure and charging solutions), but the savings would reach NOK 700 million per year (€ 70 million). Additional investments by electric power would thus be repaid within 5 years because of lower costs for fuel and maintenance (life of a ferry is 30-40 years) — not counting the environmental benefits!
  • The measure would reduce CO2 emissions by 300,000 tons a year.
  • To operate 84 all-electric ferries annually the electric energy produced by only 24 mid-sized windmills on the Norwegian coastline would be needed.
Source: Electric operation makes SEVEN out of TEN ferries more profitable – a feasibility study

In other words: The electric drive smashes diesel ferries on profitability for seven out of ten ferries! Therefore, we should act quickly to put in place the next battery ferries in Norway, and in Norway this major transition has already begun!

As a logical consequence of our firm conviction regarding the (r)evolution of the e-ferry we will open our first Siemens owned battery factory in Trondheim. Here Siemens will focus on the development and manufacturing of battery technologies for both marine and offshore oil and gas applications. The end-products will be linked to our IoT platform MindSphere. The implementation of digital technologies and data analytics into green marine solutions will be a topic of my next blog.

Many friends and colleagues across the globe keep asking me why all of this started to happen here in Norway? I thought about that, and I think, there is not a single, but many answers:

  • Norway is particularly suited because of its hundreds of fjords. This makes ferries an essential complement to road transportation.
  • We have a long and proud tradition in shipping and maritime industry. The maritime sector is currently among our most global, innovative and forward-looking industries. 
  • And the Norwegian maritime cluster is a significant international player on the global arena.

Still, in spite of my technological excitement about the future evolvement of green marine technology there’s another important player who has to fulfill its role to make things really happen: the governments. When discussing technology and profitability of battery powered vessels I tend to ask politicians: Would you rely on a car or bus fleet with an average age of 25 years to move you safely forward? What country has a car fleet of that age? I know only of one: Cuba. But when it comes to ferries on busy community lines no one seems to care.

Now Norway has finally taken a step further by requesting that all local public ferries  utilize low or zero emission technology in all future ferry procurement contracts. The Norwegian aquaculture and fishing industry has also joined the green shipping wave with a number of pioneering electric fleet initiatives.

Indeed, emissions from ferries are a problem not just in Norway, but in coastal communities and cities all over the world, as this BBC article illustrates. Compared to this, the current number electric vessels is rather low: there are 3 e-ferries operating in Norway, 58 worldwide, plus 127 electric vessels like offshore supply vessels or tugboats.

In my opinion the restructuring of the marine vessels must start now. The technology works, it’s profitable, you just need to use it! Not only on ferries and fishing vessels  in Norway or Scandinavia, but worldwide.

For now, electric ships make the most sense in populated waterfront areas where they can be recharged easily and improve air quality and noise pollution. Certainly, with big cruising and container ships – the power polluters of the seas - it is a whole different story though. They cannot rely on small, effective batteries as cruising distances are too long. Here a fully electric engine seems a vision of a more distant future. I like to put my focus on what is feasible now, the implementable solutions of today, and then see what evolves from there.

Be it the marine or automotive industry: What we need is the will, a certain political pressure and ingenuity to speed up the development of low and zero emission drives – on shore and on sea.

Related links:

Article: Electromobility  – Powering full speed ahead

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