Prospects for Battery Electric Ship Propulsion Along the St Lawrence Seaway

By Harry Valentine 2012-11-20 15:19:00

By Harry Valentine 

While ships sail along the Lower St Lawrence River throughout the year, the Upper St Lawrence River known as the Seaway provides passage to ships between late March and late December. While fuel oil prices rise, the combination of factors and ongoing developments enhance future prospects of using stored electrical energy as the source of propulsion for inland ships. Advances in grid-scale electrical battery storage technology can allow for the installation of such batteries over a wide area and limited height, in the lower levels of a ship.

The restrictions in weight carrying capacity and storage volume for batteries aboard land-based vehicles, severely restricts operating range to about 40-miles or 60Km. By comparison, the available volume and weight carrying capacity aboard ships allows for the installation of evolving grid-scale storage battery technologies that can extend operating range to 250 to 300-miles (400KM to 500KM). That range could allow battery-powered ships to operate along waterways like the St Lawrence Seaway.

Battery Technologies:

Unlike the diesel engine that occupies much vertical space, the low height of the banks of batteries would allow for increased area of flat floor capable of carrying cargo such as shipping containers. The competing battery technologies for inland water operation include the lithium-ion, lithium polymer technology being developed by Electrovaya and the competing flow-redox battery technology being developed by several other companies. The flow battery stores the energy in a metallic oxide electrolyte that is suspended in a liquid that circulates through the battery.

Flow batteries are unique in that they can be recharged while simultaneously delivering power. While vanadium oxide is the commonly used metallic oxide in flow batteries, there have been recent advances in the development of uranium oxide based electrolyte that has high electrical storage density. Researchers in Japan recently undertook research to that effect. The occurrence of deposits of the uranium oxide ore in northwestern Canada enhances prospects of adapting the ore for use in grid-scale storage batteries.

While a 600-ft long ship of 25,000-tonnes deadweight may require the power of an engine of 17,000kW output while sailing on the ocean, the lower sailing speed that is in effect along the St Lawrence River would reduce the power requirement to 4,000kW to 5,000kW. The size, volume and carrying capacity of a ship enhances prospects of carrying grid-scale storage batteries aboard an inland ship intended to sail on the St Lawrence River and part way into the Upper Great Lakes, perhaps as far as Windsor or Sarnia.

Factors Favoring Battery Ships:

There are several factors that enhance prospects of operating a few all-electric ships along the St Lawrence River, perhaps from as far to the east as Riviere-du-Loup QUE to points around Lake Erie. Deep draft ships that arrive at the mouth of the St Lawrence River would need to offload some cargo in order to sail upstream along the shallower draft between Quebec City and the Port of Montreal. The ship-to-ship transfer of cargo may occur at a location at or near the town of Riviere-du-Loup (River of the Wolf).

The all-electric ship may recharge its batteries courtesy of Hydro Quebec, at or near Riviere-du-Loup prior to taking on cargo from another ship. During an earlier period of maritime history, submarines stored electrical energy in banks of batteries to allow them to operate submerged. While the modern battery technologies would greatly extend the operating range of a battery powered ship, several features of the St Lawrence River and the Seaway enhance prospects of periodically recharging the batteries at select locations.

Battery Partial Recharging:

Unlike traditional battery technologies that require greatly extended durations for recharging, several lithium battery technologies can be rapidly recharged. Partial recharging of batteries may occur while the ship sails through narrow navigation canals, such as the South Shore Canal (14-nautical miles, 16 miles over land) and the Beauharnois Canal (11.3 nautical miles, 13-miles over land) while en route to Lake St Francis. The method of recharging would borrow precedent from the operation of electric trolley canal boats that carried a pair of telescopic poles with electrical collector shoes that rode on cables.

There may be scope to install electrical power cables at high elevation along the banks of the South Shore Canal and Beauharnois Canal. Ship mounted telescopic poles that carry electrical collector pantographs at the end would pick up the electrical power from the power cables. The Cedes Stoll system is another power collection technology that involves a carriage riding on the power cables and connected to the ship via a cable system. Some of the electric power drawn from the cables would directly provide ship propulsion. The remaining portion of that incoming power would recharge the batteries, with Hydro Quebec supplying the electrical power.

There are several narrow channels along the Lower St Lawrence River between Riviere-du-Loup and Montreal, where it may be possible to install electrical power cables along or near the shore. There may be scope for the ship to tow a small boat that would travel close to the shore. An electrical power cable would connect between the boat and main ship, as well as between the boat and the land-based power distribution installation. 

The ship’s batteries may undergo a partial recharge as the ship makes the transit through the Wiley-Dondero Canal (8-nautical miles, 9-miles over land) near Massena NY, that includes the Snell Locks and Eisenhower locks. The New York Power Authority may provide the electric power to the ships at this location, however, there is a transmission line located in the general vicinity that carries in electrical power from Hydro Quebec. Depending on the time of day, there may be scope to access electric power from any of New York Power Authority, Hydro Quebec or Ontario Power Generation.

The combination of onboard electrical storage with opportunity to recharge the batteries at Beauharnois QUE and near Massena NY, may allow the ship to sail to the Port of Toronto, and possibly to the entrance to the Welland Canal (23.5-nautical miles, 27-miles over land) along which trolley-cable power distribution technology may be installed. The entirety of the Welland Canal is located inside Canada, leaving Ontario Power Generation as the sole power provider unless the owner/operator of that canal is able to generate electrical power on site and only for internal use.

Ships that sail between Lake Erie and Lake Huron pass through the narrow channels of the Detroit River and the St Clair River. There are locations along these rivers where it may be possible to install electrical distribution technology alongside the navigation channel, to allow ships to source propulsive power directly off the grid while simultaneously recharging the onboard batteries. It may be possible to install such technology in the channel at Sault Ste Marie that links Lake Superior to Lake Huron, as well as along the shipping channel between Lake Huron and Lake Michigan that passes through the Strait of Mackinac.

Barge Trains:

There may be scope to adapt grid-scale electrical batteries as propulsive storage aboard towboats that move trains of barges. While barge trains commonly sail along the Mississippi River system and can duplicate the multiple stop operation of a local service freight train, there may be future opportunity to duplicate such operations along the St Lawrence Seaway. The long-distance towboats may recharge from trolley cables installed along certain sections of inland waterways. When barge trains stop to couple or uncouple a barge at midstream, a local battery powered towboat may shunt a barge between a nearby river port and the barge train.


Advances in grid-scale battery technology offer the prospect of adapting that electrical storage technology for inland commercial maritime operations. The future use of that technology becomes more attractive as the long-term cost of operating such technology declines relative to the price of oil. There are locations along an inland waterway where it may be possible to install electrical distribution technology over short distances, to allow ships to operate directly from the power grid while the onboard batteries undergo an in-service recharge. Hydro Quebec has excess generating capacity during the Seaway shipping season, possibly allowing for the installation of a transmission line between Sault St Marie (ON and MI) and Hydro Quebec’s James Bay hydroelectric installations.



About the Author

Mr. Valentine holds a degree in mechanical engineering from Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada, with specialization in thermodynamics (energy conversion) and transportation technology.

He served as a research assistant to Dr Ata Khan, professor of transportation engineering who is still on staff at Carleton University.  Mr. Valentine has a background in free-market economics and has worked as a technical journalist for the past 10-years in the energy and transportation industries.

Over a period of 20 years he has undertaken extensive research, authored and published numerous technical articles in the field of transportation energy.  His economics commentaries have included several articles on issues that pertain to electric power generation.

Mr. Valentine has technical journalistic experience covering low-grade and high-grade geothermal energy, steam generators (with continuous blow down to keep the boiler water clean), engine exhausts, solar thermal (low-grade and low-grade thermal), nuclear and coal-fired thermal steam-power stations. He can be reached at harrycv@hotmail.com.

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The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.