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Fuel Cells Works Interviews SWITCH Maritime’s CEO Pace

By September 15, 2021 9   min read  (1598 words)

September 15, 2021 |

Fuel Cells Works, Fuel Cells Works Interviews SWITCH Maritime’s CEO Pace

On 09.14 Fuel Cells Works sat down with Pace Ralli and Elias Van Sickle from SWITCH Maritime to find out what SWITCH has been up to as well as learn what it believes the future holds for SWTICH.

Currently, SWITCH Maritime is the only organization in the U.S. that is in the process of bringing a hydrogen powered ferry to commercial service in the United States.  Its first vessel named Sea Change will be capable of a 300 nautical mile range with a capacity of up to 75 people, and Sea Change is going to be the proverbial guinea pig in the U.S. for providing firm evidence that hydrogen fuel cell technology is now ready to replace fossil fuels in the maritime sector.

Fuel Cells Works, Fuel Cells Works Interviews SWITCH Maritime’s CEO Pace

FCW:  Assuming everything goes well, if we fast forward to 2031 then what will things look like for SWITCH at that time?  Would we find SWITCH managing several ferries around the country, or will it have expanded into light rail service as well?

We’re focused on maritime.  We believe there is plenty to work on in the shipping industry.  I think success would be having built several vessels that are decarbonized and running off of fuel cell/battery.  Ferries are a really good fit for fuel cell technology because of the operational profile of those vessel’s shorter routes and they tend to be smaller than ocean-going vessels like tankers.  Furthermore, the cargo that those ships [ferries] carry talks back.  People prefer to be riding vessels that are cleaner and it probably makes people feel better how they are commuting.  We believe that fuel cell technology can be scaled to very large ocean-going vessels.  We are already looking at larger vessels like tugs and other harbor craft.  There is a need for these technologies to be adopted.  The ship owners may not have the technical wherewithal to adopt them, and the role we see SWITCH Maritime playing is facilitating the adoption.  For a ship owner there are two major things they would have to get over with decarbonized technology: they need to build the ship and the second major category is the fueling itself.  SWITCH Maritime will be looking to play that role in the ferry industry and in larger vessels going forward.

FCW:  What parts of the United States besides the San Francisco Bay have expressed the most interest in developing a hydrogen ferry program or replacing a current diesel ferry?

Major municipal markets have expressed interest in decarbonizing without having selected or announced or talked about what technologies they are going to use to do it.  There has certainly been a lot of inbound interest on behalf of major markets.  New York City is one, and a few markets down in Florida.  I think Tampa Bay and St. Petersburg will be another really good market.  Also, Puerto Rico and Washington DC.  These are all major ferry markets that have as a city that have pressure to decarbonize.

FCW:  How does SWITCH feel the current testing of Sea Change is progressing?

It is moving forward.  It is always slower than we would like it to be, but we have had the vessel in the water underway.  We have been able to commission the propulsion system and the battery.  We are still working on some of the last regulatory topics with the U.S. Coast Guard on the hydrogen fueling.  So that is also another really big milestone for the industry globally bringing hydrogen onboard as the sole power source for a commercial ship powered 100% by fuel cell.  

FCW:  With the data from the current testing, does SWITCH feel that the operational cost of Sea Change will be appreciatively lower than the operational cost of a similar sized diesel ferry over a 10-year period?

From a maintenance period perspective absolutely.  Electrified transportation assets whether it be a ship, truck, or bus have a lot fewer moving parts, a lot less maintenance, a lot cleaner system.  The maintenance costs will absolutely be lower.   From the total cost of ownership, the build cost for fuel cell-based vessels is higher right now as is the fuel cost of the hydrogen.

At this point in time in the early [days where] hydrogen fuel cell being used for propulsion being used for propulsion on ships, the equipment is more expensive and so the build cost is more expensive than a diesel ferry would be.

We believe that a hydrogen fueled ferry can reach total cost of ownership parity with a diesel fueled ferry in 5-10 years depending on reductions in hydrogen related components, like fuel.

FCW:  When do you believe Sea Change will enter commercial operation in the San Francisco Bay?

We believe it will enter commercial operation in early 2022.

FCW:  Does SWITCH currently have any orders for any other hydrogen vessels?

No, and we are not trying to secure them.  We have a lot of dialogues underway, but our 100% focus is on vessel number one to get everything ironed out to pave the runway for the next the phase of the fleet.  We are in a lot of discussions but we are not trying to close in a specific quarter until we have this one [Sea Change] underway, proven, and permitted.   

FCW: What does SWITCH feel are the biggest obstacles for hydrogen to overcome in order to reach mass adoption in the ferry sector?

There is a huge tailwind at the moment with hydrogen since hydrogen is a publicly well-known solution for decarbonization.  I believe that continued support of hydrogen as a business as usual fuel and commodity needs to continue.  Everyone can talk about their decarbonization goals, but ultimately it will come down to cost.  Solar took off because of cost and reductions in the cost curve quickly.  If you ask the question why did solar become so cost effective as a source of power and what does hydrogen need to follow that same curve?  It really came down to capital flow and the ability for institutional capital and investment tax credits (ITC) in solar and wind.  ITC unlocked solar to come down and can do the same thing for hydrogen in various forms of transportation and industry.  I really believe that a form of ITC for the displacement of diesel assets with fuel cell would create that capital flow, would create the scale and volume that was seen by solar, and that would really be a catalyst for the adoption of fuel cell technology in various forms of transportation and industry.  That would directly result in the cost down of the higher volume scale of the equipment being produced.

Elias: Clearly this vessel is acting as a proof point where there is some see it to believe it basis for understanding in the industry.  There is still a question as to whether this is viable and the industry is waiting for the proof point.  Once the proof point lays the technology and regulatory foundation there is something to model after so everyone can look and say that this is the kind of ship we want.  Clearly, this vessel is informing certain regulations.  For instance, in California with the CARB grant that is associated with the project and for sure if there is more regulation then that pushes for more zero emission vessels in an accelerated fashion.  If you regulate to the fact that you need a zero emission vessel then all of a sudden the industry has to comply.  

FCW: How is hydrogen going to be supplied to Sea Change?  For instance, is SWITCH setting up a hydrogen filling station at a ferry terminal?

There will be a home port with a berth for overnight and there will be a hydrogen fueling will happen.  A truck will pull along side the ferry and put in the fuel very similar to how a diesel ferry refuels.

FCW:  How long is SWITCH anticipating Sea Change to take before it reaches profitability?

It is designed to be profitable from day one.

FCW:  What company is providing the fuel cells that Sea Change is using?

Hydrogenics, which is now associated with Cummins.  The electric propulsion comes from BAE Systems, and then the tanks are manufactured by a company called Hexagon.

Fuel Cells Works is definitely looking forward to seeing Sea Change launch in 2022, since it will be a major step forward for California’s hydrogen economy as well as another forward step in general for the hydrogen sector.

This year has seen a considerable amount of devastation not only in California but the world in general, especially where wild fires are concerned.  With the backdrop of that devastation the efforts of SWITCH Maritime and other hydrogen related organizations are providing needed wins in order for humanity to have a future.  Fuel Cells Works look forward to seeing SWITCH Maritime’s efforts blossom and we remain dedicated to helping to bring about the hydrogen revolution.
About the Author
Jesse Lyon

Jesse Lyon, Contributor

Jesse Lyon is a hydrogen fuel cell thought leader and world-class essayist who is committed to helping bring a hydrogen economy to life imminently. His previous work involved ten published papers on the topics of cyber liability and technology E&O, plus one paper that introduced the insurance sector to robotic liability.

The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Fuel Cells Works, its directors, partners, staff, contributors, or suppliers. Any content provided by our contributors or authors are of their own opinion and are not intended to malign any religion, ethnic group, club, organization, company, individual or anyone or anything.

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