Skip to main content
Move the World.
Washington ferries

Lead Photo © LoweStock

The ship's horn sounds once as the MV Puyallup pulls away from the dock. Dozens of vehicles line the decks below, while hundreds of people settle into the booths and tables on the passenger decks of the 450ft Seattle ferry. The smell of diesel fuel briefly wafts through the cabin.

The commute from Bainbridge Island to Seattle only takes 35 minutes on the Jumbo Mark II vessel, one of the largest Washington ferries. But during that time, the ship will burn approximately 250 gallons of diesel fuel, and as much as 5,000 gallons for the 10 round-trip passages it sails daily. That's all about to change. The Washington ferries are preparing to switch from diesel to battery power — becoming the world's largest hybrid-powered, car-carrying ferries.

The maritime transport industry is notoriously dirty. About 70% of its emissions occur within 250 miles of land, exposing coastal cities, like Seattle, to health dangers associated with pollutants.

Matt von Ruden, the Director of Vessel Engineering and Maintenance for Washington State Ferries, says the timing couldn't be better. The fleet is due for a regular equipment overhaul anyway. Why not take the opportunity to upgrade to a more environmentally-friendly design? Prompted by Governor Inslee's executive order that launched Washington Maritime Blue, a sustainable maritime initiative, von Ruden began drafting the plan.

Jumbo Mark II vessel is one of the largest Washington ferries. It burns 250 gallons of diesel fuel for the 35-minute route between Bainbridge Island and Seattle. Photo by Doug Snider via Flickr.

Jumbo Mark II vessel is one of the largest Washington ferries. It burns 250 gallons of diesel fuel for the 35-minute route between Bainbridge Island and Seattle. Photo by Doug Snider via Flickr.

The first goal is to convert the state's three largest Washington ferries, which carry as many as 2,499 people and 202 vehicles, from diesel-only to hybrid diesel-electric. Each Jumbo Mark II has four engines, totaling 16,000 horsepower. These "gas-guzzlers" drive generators, which keep the batteries topped up. By 2050, two of those engines will be gone, and in their place will be a large bank of lithium batteries — transforming North America's largest ferry system to an eco-conscious ride.

Von Ruden says reconfiguring the docking terminal to rapidly recharge the batteries while passengers depart and board will be the biggest challenge. Washington ferries don't dock in a typical fashion, alongside a dock (like parallel parking by a curb). Instead, they nose into a docking station with either end of the boat. That is where they will tap into the state's power grid.

Von Ruden’s plan to green Washington ferries includes reconfiguring the docking terminal to rapidly recharge the batteries while passengers depart and board. Photo by Cindy Shelbey via Flickr.

Von Ruden’s plan to green Washington ferries includes reconfiguring the docking terminal to rapidly recharge the batteries while passengers depart and board. Photo by Cindy Shelbey via Flickr.

Von Ruden is assessing each ferry route, the current technology, and the needs at each terminal — looking for energy sources that would make significant reductions in total emissions.

"If (the power source) were a dirty coal plant, you're not really doing much. Fortunately, in the Pacific Northwest, many of our utilities are sourced with renewable energy, primarily hydro-electric energy," he says, adding that he is motivated by his two children to strive for sustainable alternatives. "This is a real opportunity to make an impact."

The Washington ferries will be the world’s largest hybrid-powered, car-carrying ferries.

The maritime transport industry is notoriously dirty. About 70% of its emissions occur within 250 miles of land, exposing coastal cities, like Seattle, to health dangers associated with pollutants. And mitigating climate change will require tackling emissions across the transport sector.

Ferries are more ideal for this transformation than cargo ships because they have a predictable schedule, short routes, and repeatedly dock at the same place — making energy consumption consistent and offering a secure place to recharge again and again.

As electric cars have been growing in popularity for the past decade, converting the ships that carry them is a logical next step. In addition to transforming their three largest Washington ferries, the state will build five new, smaller hybrid ferries — rounding out the largest fleet of hydro-powered car ferries.

Up Next

Social Entrepreneurs
Austin Is Facing Food Insecurity. This Student is on a Mission to Solve That.
food insecurity
Social Entrepreneurs
Austin Is Facing Food Insecurity. This Student is on a Mission to Solve That.
A med student thinks the key to reducing food insecurity is through transportation. He launched Good Apple, a healthy food delivery service for families in need.

A med student thinks the key to reducing food insecurity is through transportation. He launched Good Apple, a healthy food delivery service for families in need.

Robotics
Meet Snatcher, the Chameleon Lizard Robot With an Ultra-Fast Tongue
chameleon lizard robot
Robotics
Meet Snatcher, the Chameleon Lizard Robot With an Ultra-Fast Tongue
The chameleon lizard has a highly specialized tongue. Now, a team of engineers created a quick-tongued robot.

The chameleon lizard has a highly specialized tongue. Now, a team of engineers created a quick-tongued robot.

Future of Food
These Pioneers are Building the Sustainable Food Systems of Tomorrow
These Pioneers are Building the Sustainable Food Systems of Tomorrow
Future of Food
These Pioneers are Building the Sustainable Food Systems of Tomorrow
In a new Freethink original series, Michael O'Shea goes around the world to introduce us to the scientists who are working hard to ensure that we can feed our future world.

There are currently over 7 billion human beings alive on Earth --- and in 2050 the world's population will rise by almost 2 billion. That's a lot more mouths to feed considering that roughly 11 percent of the world goes hungry today. "in the next 40 years, we need to produce the same amount of food as we did over the last 8,000 years." Ernst van den...

Computer Science
An Address for Everywhere on Earth
An Address for Everywhere on Earth
Watch Now
Computer Science
An Address for Everywhere on Earth
Can three simple words change how we find each other?
Watch Now

We take addresses for granted - but billions of people and places don’t have them, and it’s a big problem. Whether it’s voting, disaster relief, or pinpointing a spot on festival grounds, not having an address makes things that should be simple difficult. Enter Chris Sheldrick, who coordinated events in the music industry where he was frustrated by address-related problems. He created What3Words, a method of dividing the...

Challengers
Five Insights: Linc Gasking On What Every Startup Should Be Shooting For
Five Insights: Linc Gasking On What Every Startup Should Be Shooting For
Challengers
Five Insights: Linc Gasking On What Every Startup Should Be Shooting For
Linc Gasking, co-founder of VR startup 8i, discusses the day-to-day grind and big picture excitement of being an...
By Mike Riggs

Linc Gasking, co-founder of VR startup 8i, discusses the day-to-day grind and big picture excitement of being an entrepreneur.

Change Agents
Could Ugly Produce Change the World?
Could Ugly Produce Change the World?
Watch Now
Change Agents
Could Ugly Produce Change the World?
Meet the startup that wants to sell you ugly fruits and veggies
Watch Now

As much as 40 percent of the food grown, processed, and shipped for human consumption in the United States will never make it into a human’s mouth, according to Feeding America, a nonprofit group that coordinates food banks. That comes out to roughly 70 billion pounds of tossed food each year. One California startup is trying to reduce that number by selling fruits and vegetables that are too “ugly” to occupy the produce...

Genetics
Karen Aiach on Doing the Impossible
Karen Aiach on Doing the Impossible
Watch Now
Genetics
Karen Aiach on Doing the Impossible
When Karen Aiach decided to quit her finance job in 2005 in order to find a cure for the rare genetic disease that...
Watch Now

When Karen Aiach decided to quit her finance job in 2005 in order to find a cure for the rare genetic disease that was killing her daughter, people told her it was impossible. In a weird way, it was just what Karen needed to hear. Because it meant if she didn’t do it, no one else would. She started with a search. The first thing she learned is that her daughter’s disease--a rare metabolic disorder called Sanfilippo...