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BC Ferries got a half-billion-dollar cash injection on the weekend to keep fares below inflation and help electrify the fleet.

However, while Premier David Eby and Transportation Minister Rob Fleming offered details on fare objectives over the next four years, they provided little information on the province’s goals for weaning ferries off fossil fuels.

BC Ferries already has six new Island Class diesel-electric hybrid ferries plying coastal waters that are designed to convert to 100 per cent battery-electric operations. But because there are no on-shore charging stations yet, the vessels are running on diesel.

Until now, BC Ferries has said shore power facilities can’t be built until provincial or federal money is available to help with the high capital costs of the infrastructure.

On Sunday, Eby announced BC Ferries would get $500 million in new funding to ensure the affordability of the provincial service by capping fares at less than three per cent a year.

But the premier and transport minister emphasized the money will also support the electrification of Island Class ferries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs), along with other projects to green the fleet’s operations.

“By protecting the value of fares and supporting electrification of BC Ferries, we’ll lower the company's fuel costs over time [and] reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the province,” Fleming said.

Clean energy jobs are also attached to the fleet electrification, Fleming said, adding the Island Class ferries are a “good news” story given the electric battery systems in the hybrid vessels were developed by Corvus Energy, a worldwide leader in electric marine battery systems based in Richmond, B.C.

BC Ferries had hoped to fully electrify all six of its Island Class vessels by 2025. It's now aiming to have four ferries plugged into shore power by 2028. Photo BC Ferries.

If the Island Class ferries are fully electrified, it’s estimated 13,000 tonnes of GHG emissions would be eliminated annually — the equivalent of 3,800 cars on the road per year, according to BC Ferries.

BC Ferries just got $500 million in funding to keep fares low and help electrify its fleet, but critics say the provincial announcement was heavy on climate rhetoric and light on concrete details or commitment.

However, neither the premier nor the transportation minister clarified how much of the funding will be dedicated to Island Class ferry electrification or when they want shore power to come online.

Asked if electrification was a priority, Fleming said the province was “interested” in accelerating the process but indicated federal funding is necessary to make it happen.

BC Ferries originally hoped to fully electrify all six vessels, upgrade all nine terminals with rapid charging systems, and have the necessary BC Hydro service upgrades by mid-2025.

Following the announcement, opposition parties and some pundits noted the government’s announcement was heavy on climate rhetoric but light on concrete details or commitment.

It’s welcome news that coastal residents won’t see a dramatic spike in fares, said Green MLA Adam Olsen, but it’s unclear how the money will actually be spent.

The new funding prioritizes affordability and shouldn’t be mistaken for a coherent plan to electrify ferries or address any other ferry issues, like staffing shortages or service disruptions, he added.

“We see this so often, where as long as [the province] speaks about it, they believe they can claim credit for doing something,” Olsen said.

“Mr. Fleming can keep dangling the notion of electrification out there, but people need to ask, ‘Where's the plan?’” he added. “Otherwise, it's just noise.”

Drive to electrification is slowing

The six Island Class vessels serve four routes — with two ferries each running between Nanaimo and Gabriola Island and Campbell River and Quadra Island. The Powell River-Texada Island and the Port McNeill-Alert Bay routes are each served by a single vessel.

To meet the province’s CleanBC mandated emissions reduction targets for the transportation sector, as well as national and international targets, BC Ferries is trying to reduce its emissions by 27 per cent by 2030. In 2022, BC Ferries generated 312,933 tons of CO2 emissions — 98 per cent of which came from ships burning fossil fuels.

The provincial ferry service has been shopping for about $138 million in federal funding since 2021 without success.

As a result, BC Ferries is scaling back its ambitions. Now it’s aiming to electrify the two routes serving Gabriola and Quadra Island and the associated terminals between 2024 and 2028 — while remaining on the hunt for provincial or federal funding for the rest of the Island Class fleet. That includes four more new Island Class vessels in the pipeline slated to be afloat before 2028.

Slow pace of electrification shows ‘climate not a priority’

Island Class ferries don’t count as a B.C. climate commitment since there are no hard targets to power them up, said Eric Doherty, a transportation planning consultant and the president of Ecopath Planning.

“It’s really a question of priorities,” said Doherty, noting very little of the B.C. government’s current $6-billion surplus spending spree has been dedicated to driving down emissions and achieving climate targets.

The province is centring BC Ferries’ emissions strategy on burning LNG and biofuels and their dubious emissions reductions in comparison to clean electrical energy, both Doherty and Olsen said.

The federal and provincial governments are investing heavily in charging infrastructure, but the focus is limited to serving private vehicles, Doherty said.

“They should be focusing on heavily used fleet vehicles, including ferries, that if they’re paired with adequate transit to and from terminals could drop emissions even further.”

Rochelle Baker / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada’s National Observer

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All our terminals should have had shore power available by now, with a requirement that it be used by vessels at the terminals. Vessels not at terminals should be required to be powered by batteries which can be charged at terminals. There is nothing technically difficult about this. It would be good to know what the holdup really is. It can not be money as these things will ultimately pay for themselves.

For more background, see my contribution to the 2018 Coastal Ferry Services Review, a project I did for the BC Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure - https://ecoplanning.ca/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/BCF-Report-Final-May-1...

Priorities should be evaluated on a cold $/tonne basis: what subsidy or assistance, from the public purse, gets the most tonnes of CO2 out of the air?

If it should all go to subsidizing electric cars or freight or trains to get the most results, then that's where it should go.