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Vineyarders call for a plan on electric ferries

Liz Lerner

At a sold-out event, Martha’s Vineyard residents heard about what it would take to bring electric ferry service to the island — and why it may not be so easy.

The "Ferries Now" event was organized by the Martha's Vineyard Commission. It included speakers from ferry services in Denmark, Washington state, and Maine, who all described the challenges and opportunities of moving toward electric ferries.

The environmental benefits of transitioning from diesel to electric boats are clear, speakers told the group. Not only does the burning of diesel fuel by buses and boats contribute to climate change, the particles in the exhaust clouds the boats produce have been connected to a number of health issues.

A recent report found that it would cost the Steamship Authority millions of dollars less to operate an electric ferry than a diesel ferry over the course of 25 years.

But the upfront cost of an electric ferry would be steep.

"I’m having sticker shock on behalf of my customers as they’re going out to shipyards right now," said consultant John Waterhouse, who runs a naval architecture and engineering firm.

Building the appropriate charging infrastructure would also be a challenge to work through.

Steamship Authority General Manager Bob Davis said his team is exploring possibilities, but he couldn’t offer a timeline for beginning a local transition to electric ferries.

"We’re in the early stages of this. We need to be looking at how we can move forward with the funding we have, or identify additional funding sources.  It’s not something [where] we’re burying our head in the sand," Davis said.

Many islanders at the event expressed frustration at the lack of a plan on moving toward zero-emission ferries for the Vineyard routes.

Ron Dagostino, who sat in the audience at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center, said he’s angry the Steamship Authority currently has no strategic plan to go electric with its ferries and cut down on carbon emissions.

"What I really need to be able to do is trust the Steamship Authority to ask the right questions, to have a plan and execute it. I need to trust you, because I can’t do it," Dagostino said. "And right now it's very difficult to trust the Steamship Authority."

Eve Zuckoff covers the environment and human impacts of climate change for CAI.
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