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Dan Rodricks Commentary and conversation on life in Baltimore, Maryland and the USA

With electric ferries, Maryland won't need a third bay bridge

Gov. Larry Hogan has more pressing matters — saving Pimlico Race Course, keeping the Preakness in Baltimore, working with the General Assembly to get Maryland up to full speed on funding public education — but since he’s put the idea of a third Chesapeake Bay bridge out there, allow me to make a suggestion:

Forget it. There’s no need to build it, and no need to spend millions planning for it.

It’s good that Maryland has a governor with vision. He’s just looking in the wrong direction — toward the 20th century, instead of the 21st.

If we want additional bay crossings, we could get them — three or more of them, in different locations, and within the next few years — without spending upwards of $10 billion to build another bridge a decade or two from now.

The governor should take a serious look at ferries. And not noisy, diesel-powered, carbon dioxide-emitting ferries, but quiet, clean, battery-powered ferries. We could have a whole fleet of them deployed up and down the bay over the next decade, taking people, cars, trucks and dogs between any of many feasible points — from Baltimore to Rock Hall, from Sparrows Point to Tolchester, from Edgewater to Romancoke, from Edgewood to Betterton, from Chesapeake Beach to Cambridge.

Before the bridges, ferries took Marylanders across the bay. They could again. As we move away from fossil fuels and develop new sources of electricity, a 21st-century ferry system would leave a light mark on the environment, provide more (and more pleasant) route options for travelers, and relieve some of the congestion on the Route 50 bridges.

Battery-powered vessels are already in use on the other side of the Atlantic, with more on the way. “It has been the trend in northern Europe now for the last four to five years,” says Sveinung Odegard, a vice president of Corvus Energy, one of the companies that developed the battery technology that made possible wider use of electric-powered ferries in Scandinavian countries. “Energy storage for marine application is a technology that started to emerge about 10 years ago. Reduced costs of batteries and technical improvements have made this possible. It has reached a level where it makes sense from an economical point of view.”

Here are a few facts about electric ferries:

>>The world’s first battery-powered, zero-emissions ferry, the Ampere, launched in Norway in early 2015. It is 262 feet long and can carry up to 120 cars and 300 passengers. It makes the 3.5-mile run across Norway’s longest and deepest fjord, between the villages of Lavik and Opperdel, up to 38 times a day. “It runs pretty much non-stop,” says Odegard. “It takes about 20 minutes to cross and then spends 10 minutes at the dock to unload and load, and during those 10 minutes it connects to the charging system. And they top off the batteries overnight.”

>>Norway, which generates almost all of its electricity from hundreds of hydropower dams, has a national goal to convert most of its ferry fleet to battery power.

>>Worldwide, there are 152 electric-powered passenger-and-car ferries in operation or on order for construction, according to DNV GL, the Norwegian organization that tracks and classifies vessels and developments in alternative energy.

>>Some ferries are hybrids, using both batteries and diesel fuel. A ferry in the Netherlands, the 442-foot Texelstroom, can carry 1,750 passengers and 350 vehicles, according to Lloyd’s Registry. It runs hourly the 9.2 miles between the islands of Texel and Den Helder. The Texelstroom features two bridges, a large area for passengers and two engine rooms, one for diesel and one for batteries. The vessel uses rooftop solar panels to recharge its batteries.

>>Since August, a 600-passenger vessel called the Enhydra has been operating in San Francisco Bay on a lithium-ion battery, with a diesel backup engine. The Enhydra, with three decks for sightseeing, is operated by the Red and White line. The company hopes to have a zero-emission fleet by 2025.

>>Further north, the state of Washington has a plan to convert its largest ferries to electric over the next decade. The system transports more than 20 million passengers a year to different points on Puget Sound. The conversions to electric are part of an executive order from Washington’s governor, Jay Inslee, who announced March 1 that he will seek the Democratic nomination for president with a climate-focused campaign.

What a striking contrast that is: A Democratic governor who wants to launch zero-emission ferries versus a Republican governor who wants to build another bridge. But Larry Hogan is only in the first year of his second term. He still has time to call the Norwegians and get up to speed on this.

drodricks@baltsun.com

twitter.com/DanRodricks

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