When it enters Bay Area waters in the coming months, a 70-foot passenger vessel named the Sea Change will be the first commercial hydrogen fuel cell ferry to operate in the United States.
The vessel, which began operational trials in Bellingham, Wash., last week, aims to demonstrate the viability of hydrogen fuel cell technology for maritime commercial use — something Joseph Pratt, chief executive of Zero Emission Industries, supplier of the ship’s fuel cell package, has been working on for decades.
“Hydrogen is basically a way to make electricity and store electricity and to do that without having to involve fossil fuels,” said Pratt.
The project, funded in part by a $3 million grant from the California Air Resources Board and administered by the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, is part of the state’s larger investment initiative that puts billions of cap-and-trade dollars toward reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
The Sea Change also represents a shift away from the maritime industry’s dependence on fossil fuels. But while widespread momentum is propelling hydrogen power into the mainstream, hurdles remain for Pratt and the ship’s owners, the investment company Switch Maritime. Primarily, they need to convince regulators and the public of the fuel’s potential amid new research that casts doubt about its environmental benefits.
Hydrogen fuel cells, like those used in the Sea Change, generate electricity by combining oxygen and hydrogen in a chemical reaction. According to the Department of Energy, fuel cells produce no harmful tailpipe emissions, save for water, and allow the vessel to continue operating so long as fuel is provided — unlike a battery that eventually needs to be recharged.
But not all hydrogen is created equal. Despite a recent push toward “green hydrogen,” which uses renewable energy sources like solar power to produce hydrogen from water, the vast majority of hydrogen, called “gray hydrogen,” is extracted from fossil fuels and involves a carbon-intensive process.
Critics argue that, in general, hydrogen energy is costly and inherently wasteful because it takes a significant amount of energy to isolate the gas from things like water or natural gas and convert it into useful electricity.
“There’s a real rush to put hydrogen in many places where it does not belong and we don’t need it today,” said Seth Mullendore, vice president of Clean Energy Group, a nonprofit advocacy organization.
But others say the technology just needs time to catch up. “While I know there are stories out there about how much energy is wasted or used to create hydrogen as it is, you’ve got to start somewhere, just like any new fuel,” said Bronson Lamb, marketing manager at All American Marine, the builders of the Sea Change.
John Motlow, executive vice president of ZEI, argues there’s a place for both batteries and hydrogen power in a decarbonized future. While electric makes sense in some cases, he said, “batteries lose once you start getting into medium- and heavy-duty because of physics. … Batteries cannot do a big ship. They cannot do the kind of range that you would expect to get out of heavy-duty vehicles or equipment.”
The Sea Change, which is currently performing sea trials and awaiting permitting approvals from the U.S. Coast Guard before returning to the Bay Area, is technically is an electric vessel; it employs an electric propulsion system to turn its propellers. The distinction, said Elias Van Sickle, director of commercial development and operations at Switch Maritime, is that the Sea Change gets its electrons from hydrogen provided by the fuel cells, which in turn charges a battery that can supplement the fuel cells to achieve higher speeds.
Pratt is the first to admit the complexity surrounding hydrogen power, but he’s quick to dispel lingering anxiety about the fuel’s safety. “Hollywood movies and things make it seem like you can blow up an entire city with a tank of hydrogen,” he said. But, he said, hydrogen offers a safe transition to what he called “a new energy paradigm.”
Although hydrogen is known to be flammable, a number of hydrogen’s properties make it safer than other fuels, according to the Department of Energy. Hydrogen is nontoxic, for example, and is lighter than air, meaning that it dissipates rapidly, allowing for rapid dispersal in case of a leak.
Across the U.S., there is growing enthusiasm for hydrogen-powered technologies. President Joe Biden’s American Jobs Plan proposes 15 decarbonized hydrogen demonstration projects and would invest $15 billion in climate research and development, including hydrogen-based projects. The push for green energy also has prompted at least one bill that would establish a tax credit for hydrogen production using electricity produced from renewable energy resources.
In San Francisco, environmental regulators are optimistic about what the Sea Change represents for The City’s emissions targets and the health impacts of underserved communities. “Replacement of diesel-powered ferries can help reduce emissions of air pollutants and greenhouse gases and improve air quality for people living near ports,” said BAAQMD spokesman Ralph Borrmann.
But Motlow of ZEI sees wider applications for hydrogen technology across the shipping industry, which accounts for nearly 3% of global emissions. “This technology is absolutely ready, and it has been ready for prime time for a while,” he said. “We’re just scratching the surface here.”