Is Australia Crawling toward electric ferries? 


Australian billionaire Scott Farquhar, Co-Founder and CEO of tech-giant Atlassian and to avoid confusion no relation to Lord Farquaad, has sparked debate on Twitter about whether Sydney’s ferry fleet should go electric. Of course, whether anything on Twitter could be thought of as a “debate” is questionable, but whether the new Manly ferries should be electric is certainly an interesting question. After all, the NSW Government announced in November 2020 that it intended to retire most of the Freshwater-class ferries and replace them with the smaller Emerald-class. 

Farquhar’s suggestion was inspired by the launch of the world’s largest electric ferry, which was just entered into operation by Bastø Fosen in Norway. The 143m Turkey-built NB-42 Bastø Electric ferry, in operation between Horten and Moss across the Outer Oslofjord, boasts 7.2 MW (4.3 MWh) of Siemens batteries and can carry 200 cars/24 trucks as well as 600 passengers for 20 trips a day.

The ferry charges from what the charger manufacturer, Stemmann-Technik, calls a “tower solution”, basically, a pantograph. The rather neat charger is therefore protected against the elements and fitted into the docking area. 

According to Ayhan Özdemir, project coordinator for the Turkish shipbuilder Sefine, the vessel is so quiet that during its first sea trial they were surprised to realise that an electric vessel, “unlike other vessels, you can never understand whether it is sailing or not.”  

The Southern Hemisphere got its first electric commuter ferry in 2020, when Wellington Harbour, New Zealand, welcomed the East by West $4 million, 19 metre electric ferry, large enough to carry 135 commuters back and forth across Wellington Harbour

Australia is yet to follow its Antipodean neighbour’s lead, although Brisbane-based outfit H2X Marine did announce plans in November 2020 for a hydrogen ferry. 

Is Australia still crawling? 

Cleantech guru Michael Liebreich published a report with Michal Grabka and Piotr Pajda last year for the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) in which it was estimated that the electrification of inland and coastal ferries in Latin America and the Caribbean alone represents a $6.8 billion opportunity between now and 2040. 

“Basically, if you can get e-ferries to work technically, based on range/space/weight/power supply, they will almost certainly save money over time,” said Liebreich when asked to comment on the global opportunity of e-ferries, with specific reference to North Sea passages such as the NB-42. “No reason why that would not be the case in the North Sea,” Liebreich continued, “though you might want to leave a bigger safety margin for bad weather.”

Of course, the Manly ferry, which operates in the protection of Sydney Harbour between Manly and Circular Quay, would not require such a safety margin. Of course, the Manly ferry can, as I have experienced myself many times, encounter big swells when it passes the entrance to Sydney Heads. However, it is very uncommon for such swells to cease ferry operations and therefore impact on savings. 

The Manly ferry is an icon of Sydney Harbour, a green and gold immortelle flashing across the sapphire blue notch of water at the heart of Sydney life. From the wharf at Manly Cove, tourists and locals take the slow ferry or the fast ferry down the middle-passage of the harbour, briefly encountering the swell funnelling in from the rim of the Pacific, around Bradley’s Head and turning tight around Bennelong Point for full on views of the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House, depending on which side of the ferry you’re on. 

The Manly Ferry is not a commute, it’s a journey in itself and one of the great pleasures of Sydney life. When we think of the ferry we think of those famous opening lyrics from Australian Crawl’s “Reckless”, and perhaps we should also now be thinking whether we are being reckless if the next fleet of ferries is not electric. We only ask they remain as wattle-beautiful as they have always been: 

“Meet me down by the jetty landing

Where the pontoons bump and spray

The others reading, standing

As the Manly Ferry cuts its way to Circular Quay”


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