Can we make Angel Island Ferry a zero-emission experience?

Funding, infrastructure needed for energy transition for commercial boats

By Maggie McDonough

CalMatters

Recently, the Sportfishing Association of California submitted 20,000 signatures expressing its opposition to the commercial harbor craft regulations proposed by California’s Air Resources Board, which will be coming up for a vote on Nov. 19.

These 20,000 signatures indicate that small operators in California don’t feel like they are being heard, and that they are being asked to make changes that are not tenable. As one of the 16 short-run ferry operators in California required to be zero-emission by Jan. 1, 2026, the burden I and my family-operated ferry face is even greater under the proposed commercial harbor craft regulations.

Rather than oppose the regulations, I am working with California-based Green Yachts to convert the Angel Island Ferry to electric propulsion and provide a zero-emission experience for the 80,000 passengers we serve annually to Angel Island State Park.

Going zero-emission is a monumental endeavor with many technical challenges including safe battery systems with a separate ventilation system, changing our steering and fire suppression systems, designing a high-speed charging system and working with PG&E to get a high voltage electrical supply from the street to the end of our dock.

Even more difficult than the technical challenges is the financial feasibility of this project for boat operators like me. I am being asked to pay $2.8 million of which $2 million will be reimbursed after project completion by a Carl Moyer grant. It is unrealistic to place a financial burden of this magnitude on small businesses and my small business, with less than $1 million in revenues, cannot carry an $800,000 debt load after the project is done.

Personally, I cannot move forward until adequate project financing and funding are in place. My hope is that Gov. Gavin Newsom and the Air Resources Board will work with us to overcome the very real financial challenges we face in order to make it easier for folks like me or the sportfishing vessels to reduce our emissions.

My belief is that the staff at the Air Resources Board thought about the regulations from the perspective of how much our emissions need to be reduced and not from the perspective of how commercial vessel operators will easily and effectively achieve these emission reductions.

Here are my asks of the California Air Resources Board:

First, offer no-interest loans to California small businesses undertaking zero-emission projects when a Moyer grant is awarded. Many of the sportfishing operators and short-run ferries are small, family-run, women or minority businesses that cannot possibly find financing for these big projects.

Second, increase funding for zero-emission maritime projects specifically for onshore charging infrastructure. By making zero-emission electric/hydrogen repowers easier than going diesel, California will gain enormously because electric/hydrogen solutions reduce climate change emissions.

Third, technology is changing rapidly. For those of us adopting green technology, California should create a fund for adopting new battery technology, new emissions controls and new green hydrogen storage so early adopters are not penalized for going first and continue to innovate as new technology becomes available.

If just us 16 short-run ferry operators go zero-emission, it won’t be enough to affect climate change. It has to be an industry-wide effort that is technically and financially feasible for small and large operators alike.

I urge the governor and the California Air Resources Board to use this rulemaking moment to make it economically viable for boat owners to go zero-emission. Make this a broader effort to reduce climate change over the next decade than 16 short-run ferries. Please listen to our concerns, address them with us and then we can fight climate change together.

Captain Maggie is the owner-operator of Angel Island Ferry, which is a fifth-generation, woman-owned certified small family business that has been operating the route in the San Francisco Bay between Tiburon and Angel Island State Park for several decades.

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