Washington State Ferries Starts Conversion to Hybrid-Electric Power

Washington State Ferry
Washington State Ferries awarded the first contract in its system-wide electrification (WSF)

Published Aug 16, 2023 6:16 PM by The Maritime Executive

Washington State Ferries (WSF), the largest operating public ferry system in the U.S., is following the European model by converting its operation to hybrid-electric power to decarbonize inland waterways transportation. The company awarded its first contract for the conversion of ferries in a project that is expected to span 17 years and cost $3.98 billion for the electrification of the ferry system.

The first contract in the program calls for converting two of its largest ferries to hybrid-electric power. It was awarded to Vigor after a competitive process among Washington state shipbuilders. Vigor reportedly bid just over $150 million with the second bidder coming in at approximately $166 million, The state had estimated a cost of $120 million. The contract is for the conversion of two vessels at approximately $100 million with a fixed-price option to convert the third vessel in 2025.

The three vessels are the largest in WSF’s fleet. Built by Todd Pacific Shipyards in Seattle between 1997 and 1999, each ferry is 460-foot-long and can carry up to 2,500 passengers and 202 vehicles.

Work on the first vessel, the Wenatchee, is slated to commence next month at Vigor’s Harbor Island shipyard in Seattle with the ferry expected back in service in the summer of next year. The shipbuilder will then begin converting the Tacoma in 2024. WSF has the option to extend the contract to convert a third ferry, the Puyallup, in 2025.

The conversion of the propulsion system includes replacing the aging diesel generator sets with batteries, energy management systems, and charging facilities to be located in each of the terminals. In addition to the hybrid-electric conversion, the contract includes the planned replacement of the propulsion control systems. WSF has in recent years faced criticism for operating a fleet of aging vessels, acknowledging that it has been experiencing equipment failures and that replacement parts are often unavailable. The conversion program seeks to also increase the reliability of the vessels and extend the life expectancy of the Jumbo Mark II class.

“This contract is a big step toward providing our ferry-served communities with better air quality and more sustainable service,” said Matt von Ruden, System Electrification Program Administrator, adding that when WSF terminals are electrified in 2026, emissions from the three vessels are expected to drop by roughly 95 percent. The vessels currently produce 26 percent of WSF’s total annual greenhouse gas emissions and serve the most densely popular urban areas in the region.

The company, which uses 19 million gallons of diesel fuel annually, is executing after Governor Jay Inslee signed a bill in May 2023 starting the process for the electrification of the entire system. The overall program envisions an investment of $3.7 billion to electrify or build new ferries and $280 million on its terminals. The program entails retrofitting six current diesel ferries to hybrid electric, building 16 new hybrid vessels, retiring 13 diesel ferries, and adding charging power to 16 terminals. 

While the electrification program is the largest of its kind in the U.S., WSF highlights that it is following a similar path to Europe where ferry operators have converted more than 70 ferries to hybrid-electric power since 2015.

In the next phase of the program, in the fall of 2023, WSF plans to request bids for the construction of five new hybrid electric ferries. The final invitation will be issued in 2024. At the same time, they have already begun efforts to add high-speed charging capabilities to their terminals.