US Maritime Administration: San Francisco Bay Hydrogen Fuel-Cell Ferry Feasible, But Expensive

A newly released feasibility study from the US Maritime Administration on the subject of a potential high-speed, hydrogen fuel-cell passenger ferry deployment in the San Francisco Bay, as well as on the associated hydrogen fueling infrastructure, has provided some interesting new findings.


The study — conducted by Sandia National Laboratories, and which examined the technical, regulatory, and economic aspects of the construction and operation of a 150 passenger, high-speed, zero-emissions, hydrogen-powered ferry in the San Francisco Bay area — found that such a deployment had definite benefits, but that it would come at a cost premium as compared to a conventional diesel-powered ferry.

Amongst the potential benefits: the elimination of direct carbon emissions; the elimination of diesel fuel spills and exhaust/fuel odor/pollution; lower noise pollution levels and lower vibration on-board; and improved ferry response time during power changes (maneuvering).

These benefits would come at a cost premium that’s fairly high, though. Comparing 5-year fuel costs at current rates (supposing a diesel ferry using ultra-low sulfur, non-road fossil diesel), the study found that the proposed SF-Breeze’s fuel costs would be 3 to 5 times higher for non-renewable liquid hydrogen, and 5 to 16 times higher for 100% renewable liquid hydrogen. Much higher direct costs, in other words.

When the very negative health and climate impacts of diesel fuel use are factored in, though, I wonder what’s actually cheaper? There is always the option of using an all-electric ferry, but that doesn’t seem to be on the local authorities’ radars for whatever reason. (Perhaps I am wrong about this — experts, feel free to correct me.)

Notably, “cost reduction strategies specific to the vessel design, and strategies for leveraging developments in the fuel cell technology are now being explored.”

Those interested in reading the full report can find it here.

Here’s some further background from a recent article:

“Through examination of the options, the project team selected proton exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cells for the power plant due to their low weight and volume, commercial availability, proven track record, zero emission characteristic, and acceptable power performance.

“A catamaran was chosen rather than a monohull or trimaran. This decision had more to do with the 35 knot speed requirements of the ferry rather than the hydrogen fuel cell power plant, but it has the resulting advantage that a catamaran is more stable than a monohull, allowing placement of the liquid hydrogen tank on the top of the vessel while still maintaining the required stability.

“ABS and the US Coast Guard determined that the properties of liquid hydrogen were similar enough to LNG for the IGF Code to be regulatory starting point. However, there are some critical differences, such as the very high buoyancy of liquid hydrogen and the ability of liquid hydrogen to condense the components of air (nitrogen and oxygen). It was decided that the vessel, SF-Breeze, would be built and regulated in accordance with 46 CFR Subchapter T – Small Passenger Vessels, which applies to vessels with 150 passengers or less and less than 100 tons gross weight, but the IGF Code will form the basis for the hydrogen and fuel cell features which are not included in the Subchapter T regulation. ABS Rules for High Speed Craft were also adopted along with a dozen other regulations, standards, and guidance documents to fill in the gaps in the existing marine regulations.”

Study funding came from MARAD’s Maritime Environmental and Technical Assistance Program. Study participants included Red and White Fleet, the US Coast Guard, Elliott Bay Design Group, and American Bureau of Shipping.


James Ayre

's background is predominantly in geopolitics and history, but he has an obsessive interest in pretty much everything. After an early life spent in the Imperial Free City of Dortmund, James followed the river Ruhr to Cofbuokheim, where he attended the University of Astnide. And where he also briefly considered entering the coal mining business. He currently writes for a living, on a broad variety of subjects, ranging from science, to politics, to military history, to renewable energy. You can follow his work on Google+.