Electric Ferries and Other Fairytales

Joan Sammon02 Dec, 2023 5 Min Read
In Washington state, "green" heads for the bottom.

Standing in a Seattle shipyard on an autumn day back in 2019, Washington State governor and World Economic Forum (WEF) member, Jay Inslee (D) infamously announced the launch of yet another of his many, and often mired, climate-related initiatives. With Vigor, owner of the shipyard, and its then-CEO, Frank Foti, as his public-private partnership props, Inslee asserted that he was ushering in a “green revolution” by launching Washington state’s hybrid electric ferry program. Now, four years later with missed timelines, poor public policy and planning and failed fiscal stewardship over-shadowing the entire program, one must contemplate whether the objective for Inslee all along was adulation from environmental globalists.

But 2½ years later, their partnership would fall apart, casting the grand plans for a reborn fleet into a state of uncertainty at a time when new boats are needed more than ever. The result is a red sky in the morning for the fleet as the green and white totems of Puget Sound and the Pacific Northwest continue to degrade. Beyond the quest to green the heavily polluting vessels is the question of how well the country’s largest ferry system can deliver basic service for years to come.

Months later, under new ownership by one of the world’s largest private equity firms and flush with federal military contracts, Vigor expressed concern about accepting risk in its first contract to build the new hybrid-electric boats. Ultimately, Washington State Ferries cut off negotiations when Vigor said the first ferry would cost more than $400 million — more than double the state’s estimate.

“Yeah, we’re screwed,” said Sen. Joe Nguyen, a Democrat whose West Seattle district includes Harbor Island. “We thought we had set up an infrastructure that would have made it work here in Washington state. We were not quite there.”

When they worked.

Considered part of the state’s highway system, the 21 diesel-powered vessels have connected all the island communities of the Puget Sound to Seattle and other smaller shoreline cities on the Olympic peninsula and along the Puget Sound for more than six decades. It is the largest ferry system in the country and is the locals’ link to work and daily life. So important are the ferries to commuters and tourists alike that between 2017-2020 there was an average of 23 million annual trips. But, as identified in its 2018-2019 Long Range Plan, an aging fleet and fewer licensed crew were going to add pressure on an already taxed ferry system if nothing changed.

But change they did. By the time state Covid-era vaccine-mandate firings of many mechanics were over, vessels were even less well cared for than before the mandates, and the number of trips had decreased to 17.5 million. Meanwhile, the number of unplanned maintenance events had grown from about 500 annually (2017-2020), to about 900 this year so far. No mechanics -- no repairs. No repairs -- more maintenance failures. More maintenance failures -- a less reliable form of transportation.

Now, more people than ever are driving from the peninsula the ferry system was meant to connect with the island communities, while others are simply moving house in order to regain their lives and the hours lost to waiting in ferry lines. All while still being taxed to pay for the system that by all accounts is failing.

Now, more than four years after Inslee made the pronouncement of a "green" revolution, only nine of the state’s 21 ferries are considered to be in good shape. Full service requires 19 vessels to be operational at any given time, with two vessels always out of service for completion of routine maintenance. That means that even a single unplanned maintenance event throws the entire system into an operational deficit.

Phasing out fossil fuel ferries first was always a necessary part of Inslee’s electrification program. One problem, however, was the necessity of ignoring the desire and the lack of supply of humanely sourced batteries. Human slavery, after all is a requisite economic driver in the acquisition of the rare-earth elements needed for battery manufacturing. But the emotional "green" narrative of being a “good person” requires a moral oblivion that many can’t muster. The reality of the human and environmental cost of battery manufacturing begins to overshadow the narrative about the need to abandon fossil fuels.

The problems of an aging fleet and a deficit of licensed crew were never properly prioritized in Inslee’s electrification program, leaving the project endangered from the very outset. The plan envisioned the state's building five new “clean-running” [ hybrid electric] ferries by 2028, the first of which was to have had its inaugural voyage in 2022. Behind the fanfare however, Inslee had failed to garner final agreement with Vigor about who would be responsible for the vessels’ performance and, rather jaw-droppingly, how much it would cost to build these green revolution-era vessels.

Vigor, it turns out, had never actually manufactured a hybrid electric ferry (which was known throughout the process). Because of a state law requiring the vessels to be built in the state, Washington ferries were described in a 2013 report by the state auditor as some of the most expensive ferries ever built. No other in-state manufactures were ultimately deemed capable of the task for a variety of reasons, leaving state leaders to grant Vigor the contract to build the vessels—whether capable or not.

Inslee: he's got a ferry fleet to sell you.

As a “good” progressive state, where only one Republican has won a state-wide office in about fifty years, there are mountains of environmental rules, endless labor requirements [think unions] and a mish-mash of business rules for in-state manufactures that out-of-state manufacturers are not required to follow. According to one ship manufacturer familiar with this project, the regulations and edicts add about a twenty percent premium to the price of every taxpayer-financed project that uses in-state manufacturers. So when Vigor Marine, under new ownership came back to the state with a price tag of $400 million per vessel, the state came to see that the Vigor-Washington state partnership, not just the hybrid electric ferry program, would need some "re-imagining."

Political leaders have come to recognize that the state’s environmental, labor and business requirements are now impediments to completing the project. The state has lifted some requirements, and has increased the budget to better reflect the higher costs of electrification, but what of the dozen diesel-powered ferries that require maintenance today? Optimistic forecasts have the first "hybrid" ferries operational next year, with full electric vehicles arriving in 2027, but don't hold your breath.

Work began in August with Siemens Energy to convert an existing diesel boat to a hybrid vessel. The boat should be in service by September 2024, said Matt von Ruden, the system electrification program administrator for the Washington State Department of Transportation. 

The first all-electric vessel should be on the Seattle to Bainbridge Island route in 2027, von Ruden told Gov. Jay Inslee during a roundtable discussion Wednesday morning in Olympia. Inslee said that Washington will be the first state in the U.S. with electric ferries. "We love our ferries, we love clean air, we love reduced costs," said Inslee, (D-Washington).

Under legislation passed by lawmakers, the state's ferry fleet is supposed to be all-electric by 2050, but von Ruden said 76 percent of the boats should be electric by 2040.

Yeah, right. Choosing symbolism over substance when imaging electrification of the ferry system seems more dopey than doable. Globalist environmental activism never bothers to calculate the costs, direct or indirect, and doesn’t require success. Rather than progress, it beguiles tax payers with costly feel-good fantasies. And all of it just in time for Inslee to announce that he will not be running for a third term. How very globalist -- the intentions make them good people, not the outcome.

Joan Sammon is the founder of a boutique oil and gas advisory firm that develops strategies for an array of business & market challenges. As an ESG expert she explains the threat of ESG to her corporate clients.


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3 comments on “Electric Ferries and Other Fairytales”

  1. This article clearly points out that the core problems are the in-state manufacturing requirement, Vigor's inability to build on budget and on time, and lack of qualified ferry staff. Funny that electrification appears not to be a factor, but that wouldn't make for a juicy headline, so the author had to resort to non-sequiters and much bloviating about "environmentalism." British Columbia has many hybrid electric ferries already in service, so clearly the problem does not lie in electrification or a green agenda. Get your blame straight.

  2. Set up a Sail on one and have the Big Blowhards Gates and Schwab as well as Gore start blowing hard enough to move it

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