San Francisco's $8 Million Green Ferry Casts Off

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We’ve all seen hybrid cars and lower emissions buses. But what about an environmentally friendly ferryboat? The San Francisco Bay Area recently unveiled the first in a new fleet of 149 passenger "green" ferries that have ten times fewer emissions than existing boats. The first ferry, Gemini, is already in service, and three more will be added by the end of the year. The ferries were built using funds from an increase in local bridge tolls (as a result of a ballot measure in 2004).

To create the cleanest ferry possible, the Bay Area brought in Incat Crowther, an Australian catamaran designer who has developed passenger ferries for New York, China and other global cities for the past 30 years. We caught up with Andrew Tuite, the company’s technical director, to find out how they designed the $8 million-a-pop clean machine.

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Was this the first time you designed a "green" ferryboat?
We always focus on minimalizing the environmental impact, but this was the first time a customer fully embraced all of the available technologies out there to make a design as environmentally friendly as possible.

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What makes this ferry environmentally friendly?
We did several things. We optimized the hull [the body of a boat] for minimal resistance, which reduces fuel burn and emissions. That’s why the boat is long and skinny. We also worked with the engine suppliers to develop the cleanest burning engine—basically, it uses a sort of filtering process to reduce bad gases, and it runs on a blend of biodiesel and ultra low sulfur fuels. Plus we put solar panels on the top of the boat to supplement power. There is also more room for bicycles--up to 34 of them--on the boat [to encourage passengers to bike, not drive, to the ferries].

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What was the design process like?
We spent about eight months designing the ferry. First we used mathematical models to determine the shape of the hull. Then we built a little model to test it until we got it right.

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What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in designing the boat?
Actually, one of the big design challenges was complying with ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act] regulations. It was a challenge to meet all of the disability requirements for a passenger vessel--we had to make sure there was adequate indoor and exterior seating, wide aisles for wheelchairs and equipped bathrooms. We’re quite proud that we were able to do it.

Are there any economic benefits to these ferries?
Greener ferries not only have general long term community benefits (reduced emissions) but real financial incentives. More detail design analysis results in more efficient vessel hull form selection which in turn reduces the fuel burn. Fuel burn is a large contributor to the ferry business operating costs.

Do you expect we’ll be seeing more green ferries?
Quite often we find that the state of California is the world leader when it comes to the environment. So this will probably set a benchmark. There will be other cities--places like New York will look at what’s happening in San Francisco. But there is a capital cost associated with incorporating some of those green features. Then again, how much will we be paying for environmental damage?

What kind of other technologies could be incorporated to make ferries even greener?
Right now we are applying existing technologies. At some point, once other types of fuels are more mainstream and readily available, we will be able to use them. We can also keep optimizing and developing more efficient hull forms.

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