Nation’s first hydrogen fuel cell ferry to cart commuters across San Francisco Bay in early 2020 – California

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ALAMEDA — Creators of the nation’s first hydrogen fuel cell ferry always dreamed that if they built the zero-emission vessel, commercial interest would soon follow. It didn’t take long.

SW/TCH (pronounced “Switch”), a New York-based investment company, announced Wednesday — two months before the boat even touches the San Francisco Bay — it would be the first to test the technology in commercial, commuter service beginning as early as 2020. The plan, said SW/TCH co-founder Pace Raili, is to partner with large employers to offer a pollution-free alternative to gas-guzzling shuttles.

That means Bay Area residents will not only be the first to catch a glimpse of the vessel, called the Water-Go-Round, when it’s completed this fall, but some of the region’s commuters may also be among the first to experience the boat in action. First, though, there will be a three-month demonstration project where the public can learn about the technology, which has been around for decades only recently adapted for maritime use, said Joe Pratt, the chief executive and technical officer of Golden Gate Zero Emission Marine, which designed the vessel. His company secured a $3 million grant last year from the California Air Resources Board to build it with help from Alameda’s Bay Ship & Yacht Co.

“It was never intended to just be a demonstration project,” Pratt said. “It was always intended to be built for long-term commercial service.”

The nation’s first hydrogen fuel cell-powered ferry, called the “Water-Go-Round,” is expected to be completed by September. After a three-month demonstration project, it will start carrying commuters across the San Francisco Bay in early 2020. (Rendering courtesy Courtesy Golden Gate Zero Emission Marine Project) 

That’s where SW/TCH comes in. The company was founded on the premise of investing in zero-emission technology specifically for maritime use. Once the technology is proven, Raili said the next step will be building another ferry to grow the operation, potentially partnering with publicly-funded services, such as the San Francisco Bay and Golden Gate ferries, to build the boats and run commuter service for them, too.

Because the Water-Go-Round is relatively small, holding only 84 people compared to the San Francisco Bay Ferry’s 400-person-plus vessels, it can operate in many of the Bay Area’s shallow marinas without the need for dredging, though Raili said they could build hydrogen fuel cell boats that large, too. The ferries use a truck filled with liquid hydrogen to refuel the boats, similar to the way diesel boats are refueled now.

To start, Raili said they will focus on private partnerships. There are no contracts in place, so it’s unclear where the ferry would pick up and drop off passengers. But Raili said it would likely compliment existing routes private ferry operators Tideline and Prop SF already run. Tideline has public commuter routes from Berkeley to San Francisco’s Ferry Building and Mission Bay’s Pier 52, meaning anyone can show up and buy a ticket. Prop SF operates more than a dozen private routes that are exclusive to certain Bay Area employers.

The “Water-Go-Round” will be the first passenger ferry powered with hydrogen fuel, a new technology to significantly reduce greenhouse emissions from the maritime industry. (Rendering courtesy Courtesy Golden Gate Zero Emission Marine Project) 

The Water-Go-Round is just the start of what the boat’s designers hope will be the proliferation of hydrogen fuel cell technology on the water, Pratt said. The hydrogen fuel cell powertrains can be fitted in new or old vessels, alike. They can power any kind of vessel, from tug boats to cargo freighters to cruise ships, he said.

Already, Golden Gate Zero Emission Marine is fielding inquires for how to apply this technology elsewhere as regulations to reduce water-based pollution fuel demand for greener solutions, Pratt said. Those ships could be built in Alameda at Bay Ship & Yacht Co., in yards up and down the West Coast or anywhere across the country, he said.

“The more we talked to people the more we found out people were really waiting for this even though they didn’t know what it was they were waiting for,” Pratt said. “But then we showed them what could be possible, and a lot of people said, ‘I want that.’”

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