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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

First of three WA ferries pulled for hybrid-electric conversion

By David Kroman Seattle Times

The ferry Wenatchee, one of Washington State Ferries’ three largest vessels, was pulled out of service this week to undergo conversion to hybrid-electric power. It will be out of rotation for the next year as workers overhaul the 25-year-old boat into one that will eventually run mostly on rechargeable battery power.

It’s the most concrete step toward the state’s ambitious $4 billion, nearly 20-year planned makeover of the aging fleet, which burns around 19 million gallons of diesel fuel each year. When finished, emissions are projected to drop by 75%.

The Wenatchee is the first of the three Jumbo Mark II vessels slated for conversion. The goal is to complete the work by late summer 2024, upon which the Tacoma will take its turn, followed by the Puyallup in 2025.

The Wenatchee is currently docked in Eagle Harbor on Bainbridge Island receiving routine maintenance. Next week, it will sail to Harbor Island in Seattle, where the shipbuilder Vigor will perform the work.

Vigor was awarded the $150 million contract to perform the work last month. That price tag is 25% higher that WSF’s original $120 million estimate. As a result, the contract guarantees construction of the first two boats and leaves an option for the third.

When finished, two of the Wenatchee’s four diesel engines will be replaced by large — and heavy — batteries. To start, the boat will run like a hybrid car, with the diesel engines charging the batteries, reducing emissions by around a quarter.

When Colman Dock in Seattle is eventually retrofitted with onshore charging equipment, the boat will plug in while cars load and unload, reducing emissions by more than 90%.

By 2040, the state wants to build 16 new hybrid-electric ferries, while converting six others away from diesel. Reaching that target will be a challenge. The Legislature has so far only budgeted $1.3 billion — about a third of the total projected cost — and the price tag is already increasing.

The ferry system had hoped to have its first new boat by 2022, for below $200 million; the earliest arrival date is now 2027 and the state has not yet found a builder.

Losing a Jumbo Mark II boat for each of the next three years presents a challenge to a fleet that’s already stretched thin. The current roster of 21 boats leaves no spares during the peak summer seasons, although crew shortages mean the system is already not operating at full capacity.

More immediately, the three boats slated to be pulled each carry 202 cars. The next two largest Jumbo ships carry 188. The Chimacum, which replaced the Wenatchee on the Seattle to Bainbridge Island route carries 144 cars.