BC Ferries seeks funding to convert one-third of its fleet to electric

BC Ferries seeks funding to convert one-third of its fleet to electric
BC Ferries is looking for government funding to convert its Island Class vessels, seen here, into fully electric ships.

B.C. Ferries is floating an ambitious plan to convert one-third of its fleet to fully electric ships.

The ferry corporation is seeking funding from the federal government to retrofit or build 13 Island Class vessels, as well as upgrade 18 terminals with rapid charging stations, at a cost of $1.2 billion.

“When fully built out, the Island Class will compromise 1/3 of B.C. Ferries’ entire fleet,” said an internal plan circulated to the federal and provincial government, as well as other stakeholders.

“This is potentially one of the most sweeping carbon reduction initiatives in the marine industry world-wide.”

B.C. Ferries currently has two new Island Class ships, which run on a hybrid diesel-electric system and went into operation last year between Powell River and Texada Island, as well as Port McNeill to Alert Bay and Sointula. The new vessels hold up to 47 vehicles and 450 passengers and crew, with amenities such as charging stations for electronic devices and accessible washrooms.

The first stage of B.C. Ferries’ plan would retrofit those two ships, plus four more on order from a Romanian shipyard, into fully electric vessels. It also calls for the installation of rapid charging systems at nine terminals.

The cost of the first stage would be $150 million, and take two to three years, the corporation estimates. That’s on top of the almost $86 million B.C. Ferries paid a Dutch company to build the first two Island Class ships, and the almost $200 million more its spending on the four additional ships under construction.

The second stage calls for seven new Island Class ships to be built in Canada, and nine terminal upgrades, at a cost of more than $1 billion.

All told, the proposal requires almost $1.2 billion, and would take up to seven years, reads the plan.

“B.C. Ferries will contribute towards covering the costs of the program but the execution of both stages is dependant on government funding to proceed,” according to the corporation.

The electrification project would not involve the large Spirit Class ships on the major routes between Vancouver Island and Metro Vancouver.

B.C. Ferries CEO Mark Collins would not comment on the proposal until it is officially delivered to the federal government.

Typically, the federal government does not provide funding to help B.C. Ferries build ships, though it does often waive millions in import fees and duties so the corporation can contract to foreign shipyards that build for cheaper rates.

B.C. Ferries hope to access billions of dollars Ottawa is spending both on COVID-19 economic recovery and its “Zero 2050” program to reach net-zero carbon pollution by 2050. The proposal document is subtitled “Canadian climate leadership” and touts switching the fleet to electric as reducing greenhouse gas emissions by the equivalent of 7,200 vehicles in the first stage. The move would help Ottawa reach its climate goals and produce ships that pollute less and are quieter, according to the corporation.

B.C. Ferries is also touting the potential for job creation in local shipbuilding, an idea that dovetails with a push Premier John Horgan is making to have the federal government award an arctic icebreaker contract to Seaspan shipyards in North Vancouver.

Horgan told CHEK News in a recent interview that getting the icebreaker contract would position B.C. to grow its shipbuilding sector so that it could consider ferries in the future.

“I’ve been pushing pretty hard to have the national strategy include keeping B.C. at the front of the line so we can start looking again at our own vessels, B.C. Ferries, how can we do more,” he said.

The B.C. government also typically does not contribute direct funding to ferry shipbuilding, instead requiring the quasi-private B.C. Ferries (which is set up like a private corporation but has a lone shareholder in the provincial government) to finance and carry the debt of the construction on its own books, separate from the province.

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Rob ShawRob Shaw

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