Welding torches spark inside a giant construction shed on the northern shore of Alameda Island where a dozen workers are attaching pre-cut aluminum plates to the ribs of a new catamaran ferry boat.
Each piece has been laser-cut by a fabricator in Louisiana with a number etched on it that corresponds to its location on the hull -- all carefully illustrated in the detailed blueprints for the boat.
“It’s a bit like assembling a Revell model,” said Alan Cameron, general manager at Bay Ship and Yacht Co., where the boat is being built.
But this is no toy that is slowly taking shape.
It is the new hydrogen fuel cell ferry, Water-Go-Round, a 70-foot, 84-passenger boat that will be the first fuel cell vessel of any kind in the United States and the first commercial fuel cell ferry in the world. Backers of the project say its completion will herald “a global paradigm shift” for the maritime sector -- a huge symbolic step away from fossil fuels and toward non-polluting fuel cells. “Hydrogen fuel cells are the next step in the long history of boat propulsion -- from wind to steam to diesel to LNG,” Red and White Fleet President Tom Escher, a co-founder of the project, said in an interview earlier this year. “I see Water-Go-Round as a seed that is going to show the maritime industry that, yes, we can operate a vessel with no emissions.”
Escher began this venture in 2017 when he and Red and White Executive Vice President Joe Burgard teamed with Joseph Pratt, an expert in fuel cell technology at Sandia Laboratories who had studied fuel cell applications for maritime transportation. The three-men founded a company called Golden Gate Zero Emission Marine (GGZEM) with the goal of building non-polluting boats.
Water-Go-Round is its first such boat, and it has not been an altogether easy undertaking.
GGZEM announced on its website that it planned to launch in in the middle of this year, but the boat’s completion date has since slipped a bit, first to September and now to later this fall. And although no one wants to talk specific dollars, the project’s cost has grown as well.
The construction challenge is a big one for Bay Ship, which is primarily a boat repair business, albeit a large and exceptionally important one to the Bay Area. Bay Ship’s sprawling yard along the inner Oakland Harbor is a variety pack of boats in for overhaul -- ferries, tugs, barges, Coast Guard cutters, giant yachts. But the Water-Go-Round project is something unusual, not just because it involves groundbreaking fuel cell technology, but because it is one of the few times Bay Ship has constructed any commercial vessel from scratch.
Complicating the picture, Bay Ship relies on a variety of suppliers -- some traditional, some not -- for the boat’s fuel cells, power trains, control systems, hydrogen tanks and more. And the Coast Guard, which rigorously monitors the construction of passenger ferries, has needed to modify its protocols for the new fuel technology.
“With this many partners, this number of eyeballs, it adds a level of stress,” said John Motlow, GGZEM’s vice president for marketing and strategy. “With the Coast Guard, there has been a lot more educating about this power train. It’s not ‘Here’s your checklist’ the way it is for a diesel-powered ferry.”
But with concern over carbon emissions and enthusiasm for alternatives continuing to grow, Motlow said the project has broad and growing support from vendors, government agencies and the public. While the energy required to produce, store and transport hydrogen remains significant, its use in fuel cells is quiet and free of fumes. Simply put, the fuel cell combines hydrogen and oxygen in a chemical reaction to produce electricity, which powers the boat and leaves only water as exhaust.
And if Bay Ship management is concerned about setbacks in the initial timetable, they don’t show it.
“There are a lot of moving parts in a project like this,” said Richard Maguire, Bay Ship business development manager, comparing the engineering challenge to building a Saturn V rocket versus a Ford sedan. “The world’s eyes are on us, so rather than pushing it, we want it safe and in perfect working order.”
Any potential financing difficulties with the venture were averted last month when an East Coast maritime investment group called SW/TCH (pronounced Switch) Maritime acquired Water-Go-Round, pumping an undisclosed amount of money into the project. SW/TCH, which seeks to build North America’s first fleet of non-carbon-polluting vessels, works in tandem with another developer of clean maritime fuel infrastructure, Clean Marine Energy, and both companies are owned by a large, privately held maritime business called MidOcean Marine.
Today, key participants at SW/TCH and GGZEM say the boat will hit the water for trials by the end of November.
“We’re on schedule,” said Motlow. “It will be on the water this fall.”
When it comes, the launch will be an exceptionally high-profile event, marking the start of a three-month demonstration period for the California Air Resources Board, which has provided an additional $3 million in Cap-and-Trade funding for the boat.
A crew from Red and White Fleet will operate Water-Go-Round during the demonstration, but it isn’t publicly known who will run the boat when testing ends and it enters commercial operations. Red and White is already operating the nation’s largest electric hybrid vessel, Enhydra, from its dock at Pier 43.
“We do anticipate the ferry will operate in the San Francisco Bay Area, (but) the operator is to be announced,” said Elias Van Sickle, a project manager at SW/TCH.
Although Van Sickle declined to speculate about a commercial operator, it’s considered likely the boat will be used by a private company for relatively short runs. That might include commuter service for a private technology company such as Genentech, which already hires ferries to carry employees from Oyster Point to the East Bay. Facebook and Google have also experimented with ferry service for their employees, with the private Prop SF running boats to the Port of Redwood City; and Treasure Island developers might be interested in the high-profile boat for a promised new ferry run between the island and downtown San Francisco.
In any case, the boat will be fueled at the dock by hydrogen from a truck -- most likely in Oakland, which would avoid having to haul the compressed gas across the Bay Bridge, which might not be legal.
Whoever operates the boat, Water-Go-Round’s presence on the bay will be a maritime event of historic magnitude.
“There is worldwide interest in this project,” said Bay Ship’s Maguire. “It’s a lifetime opportunity to be the first company doing this, and we’re super proud of it.”
This article was originally published in Waterfront Briefing, a regular executive report of issues and events related to San Francisco Bay transit.