Juneau resident Bob Varness is showing how Juneau can be a leader in sustainable maritime transport. (Courtesy Photo / Brian Wallace for Juneau Climate Change Solutionists)

Juneau’s Climate Change Solutionists: Electrifying marine transportation with Bob Varness

Our maritime lifestyles and dependence on maritime transportation generate significant emissions.

By Anjuli Grantham

Juneau is the most active maritime port in Alaska. In 2019, the City and Borough of Juneau’s harbormaster issued 2028 launch ramp permits. That same year, large cruise ships made 556 port calls. There are 213 fishing vessels ported in Juneau. Plus, Juneau has the most documented commercial vessels over 25 feet in the state.

Simultaneously, maritime-related emissions are toxic to human health and contributors to global warming. The bunker fuel that powers large ships contains 3,500 times more sulfur than the diesel in cars and trucks. The cruise ships that frequent Juneau are mandated to burn diesel fuel when near port, but a cruise ship still emits more nitrogen oxide during eight hours at port than 10,000 cars.

Even small boat engines are notoriously dirty. In 2010, the International Maritime Organization mandated emissions improvements on maritime motors, but these newer engines still release 30 times more emissions than a standard car engine.

In 2010, 10% of Juneau’s fuel went to power marine vessels. This fuel then generated 17% of Juneau’s greenhouse gas emissions. Note that this number is artificially low, because it does not include vessels that purchase fuel elsewhere (like cruise ships and barges), or recreational vessels that are fueled at the gas-pump, rather than the dock. Clearly, our maritime lifestyles and dependence on maritime transportation generate significant emissions above and beyond the smog that hovers over cruise ships in the summer.

[Juneau’s Climate Change Solutionists: Composting organic waste with Lisa Daugherty]

But solutions exist to reduce the noxious pollution emanating from ships and the greenhouse gas emissions released from our outboard motors. Project Drawdown lists advances in shipping as solution 32 of 80 for addressing climate change. Such solutions include dock electrification, electric boats, and hybrid diesel/electric marine vessels.

Juneau resident Bob Varness is showing how Juneau can be a leader in sustainable maritime transport.

In 2004, Bob looked up Lynn Canal as he returned home after bringing tourists on a whale watching trip and saw the haze of diesel smoke. In 2014 he was on the verge of retiring and planning to restart his whale watching business. Yet thinking back, he remembered if often felt he was selling tours in order to keep his boat full of fuel. “Something has to change,” he thought to himself.

After a career spent in telecommunications and decades spent tinkering on watercraft, Bob figured he had a straightforward solution: an electric-powered boat. This emissions-free vessel would run on local hydropower, a much cheaper fuel source than the marine fuel barged to Juneau. Moreover, the near-silent motor’s eco-friendly credentials would set him apart from other whale watching outfits.

Little did Bob know that he was propelling his way into a nascent industry. He looked to buy an electric boat and couldn’t find one. So, he connected with a naval architect, and together they found a battery solution for powering the Tongass Rain, a 47-passenger electric powered catamaran. But federal regulatory code and the swiftness of technological changes within the battery industry conspired to mire the project in red tape. “It fell flat with the Coast Guard inspection process. There was no established process or code for certifying lithium battery

powered passenger vessels over 6 passengers. Plus the electric propulsion technology was changing so rapidly, and anytime you changed one element in the plan you had to start the process all over again,” Bob says. He decided to shelve the Tongass Rain and wait for the regulatory environment and battery technologies to mature.

In the meantime, he’s designed several additional electric powered vessels. Several are still conceptual, but others are already in operation, including his retrofitted Sea Dory with a 10 k/h battery bank, and his catamaran, the Tongass Mist, with a 21 k/h battery bank. Bob has started selling Torqueedo electric outboards and estimates that there are close to fifteen electric powered watercraft in Juneau, with a few others across Alaska.

Although the electric boat industry is new, it is growing in popularity and horsepower.

“You can operate your boat at a 75% to 80% cost savings compared to diesel,” Bob explained. “And there are options from one horse power to a hundred horse power.”

Hybrid options are available, as well. Fishing vessels that convert to hybrid-electric motors would experience a 35% reduction in fuel costs, Bob asserts.

Electric boats present a compelling work force development opportunity. Demand for converting watercraft to electric and hybrid-electric is growing, but “Who is there to do these conversions? This isn’t just a local opportunity, it is a global business opportunity,” Bob says.

Bob recently formed a collaboration of boat-building professionals to design, build and deliver electric vessels in Alaska and elsewhere. This effort is intended to educate about the benefits of vessel electrification and deliver electric boats to clients suited for Alaska waters.

Juneau could be a leader in the electrification of maritime transportation. It would require educating consumers and developing and attracting a maritime workforce capable of converting and servicing electric watercraft. Moreover, dock electrification needs to become standard practice, both for cruise ships and smaller watercraft. For personal and commercial watercraft, this takes the guise of dock slips with power receptacles for faster charging. For cruise ships, this would be requiring shore power at all commercial docks and piers.

When the City and Borough of Juneau provided shore power to the Franklin dock in 2001, Juneau became the first cruise port in the world with such infrastructure. But that leadership has been eclipsed as other ports have aggressively (and successfully) reduced emissions from shipping. Today we are faced with both the pressing need to reduce our maritime transportation-related emissions, and a singular economic opportunity: to convert Alaska’s busiest maritime port into its greenest.

• Anjuli Grantham is a public historian and museum curator who serves on the board of Renewable Juneau and is vice chair of the Juneau Commission on Sustainability. Juneau’s Climate Change Solutionists is a series that features 10 local solutions to climate change and 10 people who exemplify the solutions. The solutions are based on Project Drawdown, a global project that quantifies the most effective solutions for halting global warming. The series was produced with support from a Juneau ArtWorks grant. It appears weekly in the Juneau Empire.

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