Ferries clear hurdle in plan to switch to liquid natural gas
SEATTLE — The U.S. Coast Guard commander who will make the final decision about a plan to convert some Washington State ferries to liquid natural gas fuel says he sees nothing at this point that would stop the plan.
But Captain Joe Raymond said he hasn’t made a final decision yet. A public comment period opened this week and runs to January 12.
His biggest issue: Is it safe?
“I think with the proper safeguards, it will be,” he told KOMO 4 News in an exclusive interview. “And that’s what this whole process is set up to do – is to make sure that we deliberately look at everything, hear everybody who has concerns.”
Such a conversion would be the first time ferries in the U.S. would switch from the diesel they burn now to cleaner, cheaper liquid natural gas.
The liquid natural gas would be stored in tanks on top beginning with the six Issaquah class ferries. The conversion would cost $75 million, but the ferry system would recoup that investment in just a decade with another 20 years of cost savings after that.
The price of a ferry ticket has gone up 12 times in the last 14 years thanks in no small part to the rising price of diesel fuel and the loss of a dedicated revenue stream.
The Washington State Ferry system runs 22 ferries nearly every day and spends $124 million a year for 17 million gallons of diesel. In 2000, that cost burned 11 percent of its budget, but now it consumes nearly a third of its budget.
The Coast Guard just finished its initial review of the plans and is preparing a letter of recommendation that would allow the ferry system to proceed.
“The key is to have the proper cautions in place,” said Capt. Raymond.
He says proper safeguards prevent fires. In fact, liquid natural gas is not generally flammable. Only when it warms back into gas can it ignite. The ferry system plan would actually capture flammable gas vapors and add it to the vapor stream used to fire the engines. Automatic safety measures would counter human error. Re-fueling would be needed only once a week or so because LNG is 600 times more compressed than the equal energy value of diesel which must be added to most ferries daily.
The ferry system has received global recognition for its proposed safety protocols for the conversion project.
“I give them credit for that,” said Capt. Raymond. “It’s kind of hard to be the first and they’ve stepped out with that. I think they’ve approached this very deliberately. They’ve definitely done their homework.”
Many experts believe LNG is the future of shipping. Scandinavian countries have used it for several years without a problem. Several shipping companies are converting existing ships or commissioning construction of new ships using LNG fuel as a means of significantly reducing fuel costs and emissions.