Electrification expands from San Francisco streets to the Bay

Every day, people gather on The Embarcadero to board excursions around the San Francisco Bay. As the boats set off to Sausalito, Angel Island and beyond, the sound and smell of their diesel engines fills the air.

California’s seas stand in contrast to its streets. The push to meet climate goals and cut air pollution has made the state’s roads quieter and cleaner.

Earlier this year, Gov. Jerry Brown introduced a $2.5 billion plan to help Californians buy electric cars and expand high-speed charging stations. The goal is to put 5 million zero-emission vehicles on the road by 2030. Right now, California has about 350,000 electric cars, much more than any other state. Thousands of those are in San Francisco.

While electric vehicle use is propelling The City and state into a more sustainable future, electric commercial harbor crafts, like ferries and tour boats, seem stalled. Instead, vessel operators focus on filtering systems and cleaner fuels, such as low-sulfur diesel and natural gas. There’s even talk some may soon start using local, renewable diesel made from refined vegetable oils and animal fats.

Red and White Fleet’s Enhydra, scheduled for completion this summer, could be the first 700-passenger, lithium-ion battery hybrid vessel operating in the U.S. (Courtesy Red and White Fleet)

But it’s possible for passenger vessels to ditch diesel completely. Red and White Fleet, a family-owned sightseeing company operating in San Francisco since 1892, is adopting battery technology used on electric ferries in Europe. The company hopes its new vessel, the Enhydra, will expand California’s fuel-free future from the streets to the seas.

“This boat will show that you can have viable electric boats for sightseeing and other uses,” Tom Escher, president of Red and White Fleet and the founder’s grandson, told me. “It will be a beacon for everyone else.”

The company may be the first in the United States to develop a vessel with the potential for zero emissions, but it isn’t the first to explore electrification.

Alcatraz Cruises has operated hybrid vessels since 2008. The company’s three crafts are powered using a combination of diesel-powered generators, electric motors, wind turbines and photovoltaic solar panels. Each vessel can operate on propulsion batteries alone for more than one hour, according to Alcatraz Cruises’ website.

Like hybrid cars, hybrid vessels offer benefits beyond the environment. Operators can save money on fuel and maintenance costs. With the increasing cost of cleaner fossil fuels and vessels’ long, usable life, these savings can be significant. Margaret Foster-Roesner, director of ISO, sustainability and training at Alcatraz Cruises, said the fleet has lowered the company’s emissions and expenses.

“Our carbon dioxide emissions went down approximately 70 percent,” she told me. “We’ve also saved quite a bit of money.”

Red and White Fleet hopes to lower emissions and expenses even more. Scheduled for completion this summer, the Enhydra could be the first 700-passenger, lithium-ion battery hybrid vessel operating in the U.S.

Putting lithium-ion batteries on ships has raised concerns in the past. But ferry operators in Europe have successfully implemented design features to maintain thermal control and avoid damaging moisture. Lithium-ion-powered ferries regularly traverse Scandinavia’s fjords. All Red and White Fleet had to do was copy their features.

When it first launches, the Enhydra will run on cleaner diesel in addition to battery power. But once charging capabilities improve in San Francisco, the vessel can propel passengers around the Bay without sound or smoke. It could be entirely electric.

“We see a pathway to zero emissions in the future,” Joe Burgard, Red and White Fleet’s vice president of operations, told me. “We just need to get the infrastructure in place.”

In addition to infrastructure needs, there also isn’t much funding for wide-spread electric vessel implementation. The state doesn’t incentivize electric vessels the way it does electric cars. Red and White Fleet paid for the Enhydra out of pocket. The company did not receive any state or federal planning or assistance grants.

The Embarcadero is a reminder that the path to zero emissions isn’t limited to streets. Electrifying the sea needs to be part of the conversation. The Enhydra is a glimpse at a fuel-free future where operators can reduce their emissions and their expenses. California and San Francisco can make even bigger waves for the environment if they make incentives and infrastructure available for electric vehicles and vessels.


“Where does wax paper belong? We use it primarily to wrap sandwiches.” — Douglas Leurey

Companies use different materials to make paper moisture proof. While wax paper doesn’t belong in the blue bin, without knowing more, it’s hard to know whether it belongs in the green or black. The waxy paper around individual Starburst candies, for example, could be coated with a non-compostable, petroleum-based product.

It’s possible to wrap your sandwiches in brown, compostable parchment paper. Just look for boxes with the label. Many companies also sell great, reusable sandwich bags. They’re a wonderful way to save the environment and money.

Thanks for helping us wrap that up! Please send more sorting questions to bluegreenorblack@gmail.com.

Robyn Purchia is an environmental attorney, environmental blogger and environmental activist who hikes, gardens and tree hugs in her spare time. Check her out at robynpurchia.com.

Robyn Purchia
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Robyn Purchia

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