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Unplugged ambition: B.C. Ferries scales back plans to electrify fleet

Drive to meet emissions mandate has slowed while corporation awaits funding
One of BC Ferry’s new hybrid vessels, Island 3 ferry was scheduled to service the Campbell River - Quadra route, one of 2 routes the ferry corporation remains focused on electrifying. (Photo courtesy BC Ferries)

By Rochelle Baker, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter CANADA’S NATIONAL OBSERVER

BC Ferries has officially changed course, scaling down its climate ambitions to electrify its Island Class fleet and ability to achieve provincial emissions targets.

In 2021, the provincial ferry service got permission for the first phase of its Island Class Electrification Program (ICEP) — to convert the six Island Class diesel-electric hybrid ferries it has currently in operation to 100 per cent battery-electric operations by 2025.

The electrification project included upgrading nine terminals serving four routes to allow rapid on-shore charging so the vessels can stop running on diesel.

However, that plan was contingent on securing adequate funding from the federal and provincial governments — something that hasn’t occurred.

The slowed pace of BC Ferries’ electrification plan is taking place even though the corporation’s drive to drop emissions to meet the province’s mandated targets appears to be at a standstill.

The ferry corporation is now aiming to electrify four Island Class vessels serving routes between Nanaimo and Gabriola Island and Campbell River and Quadra Island, said Brian Anderson, BC Ferries’ vice-president of strategy and community engagement, at a recent Quadra-Cortes ferry advisory committee meeting.

The BC Ferries board has authorized moving ahead with a reduced scope for electrification, but the new plan must still get the go-ahead from the Office of the BC Ferry Commissioner, which is responsible for capping fares and approving major capital expenditures, said Anderson.

“We’re working to get started on our full electrification journey, and we’ve picked the routes that we think have the greatest degree of success for testing and trialling the ICEP,” he said.

BC Ferries is buying four more new Island Class vessels to add to the current fleet by 2028, with an eye to fully electrifying them at some point in the future, he said.

Anderson declined to provide information on the timelines or overall costs for the pending electrification of the existing and future Island Class ferries.

Budgets or financial information on BC Ferries’ ICEP plan isn’t public due to “commercial sensitivities” and the fact bids for procuring the new vessels are still being discussed, he said.

The timeline to plug in the four ferries will become public after the ferry commission seeks public input and authorizes the plan, he added.

However, information provided by BC Ferries to the federal government in its pitch for funding to electrify all six Island Class vessels and their terminals put the cost at approximately $135 million.

The project would also likely eliminate 15,400 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions — the equivalent of removing 3,427 cars from the road annually — as well as 60 tonnes of air pollutants like nitrogen oxide, sulphur dioxide and particulate matter annually.

The ferry service is trying to reduce its emissions by 27 per cent by 2030 to meet provincial targets mandated in the CleanBC plan.

But BC Ferries generated approximately 329,000 tons of greenhouse gas emissions — 98 per cent of which came from ships burning fossil fuels — during the 2022 fiscal year that ended on March 31, 2023, the corporation’s latest sustainability report shows.

That equates to less than a four per cent drop from the 2008 baseline year. That reduction appears to represent the ferry corporation’s greatest emissions reductions to date — with the exception of declines caused by service reductions for two years during the pandemic.

As of 2022, annual fluctuations in the fleet’s GHG emissions have been primarily driven by changes in service levels rather than reductions in emissions, according to BC Ferries’ Clean Futures Plan.

In February, the province announced a one-time $500-million funding boost to BC Ferries to ensure fares wouldn’t skyrocket with inflation and purportedly to help electrify the fleet. But it didn’t clarify how much funding would be dedicated to electrification and to what extent.

The province announced Tuesday that funding has resulted in a cap on fare increases to an average of 3.2 per cent annually over the next four years, down from a once-projected yearly spike of 9.2 per cent.

“The $500 million will also allow BC Ferries to deliver greenhouse gas emissions reduction through electrification of vessels and other initiatives to green the fleet and operations,” the transportation ministry release stated.

However, no details were provided on how much funding is being directed to fleet electrification and other initiatives to reduce emissions, and what the targets and timelines for any projects might be.

BC Ferries did not respond to an interview request or questions from Canada’s National Observer about the ICEP plan or questions about interim reduction targets to meet its 2030 emissions objective.

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