Niagara Falls’ new ferry is electric, but it’s not alone.

Visitors to Niagara Falls can now take an all-electric ferry through the iconic waterfall,media The Verge reported. The two ferries made their debuts in New York on October 6th, fueled by locally generated hydropower. When passengers climb and leave the ship, their batteries can be recharged in as little as 7 minutes.

Niagara Falls' new ferry is electric, but it's not alone.

The new ship, operated by Maid of the Mist, was one of the first of its kind to sail by water in the United States. The first all-electric passenger and car ferry in the United States will be launched from the banks of the Alabama River in 2019. These new, pollution-free voyages are part of a global trend to electrify passenger ships.

“The electrification of these two new tourist boats sets an example of how we can electrify the economy, which is good for our communities, our health and our climate.” Gil Quiniones, president and chief executive officer of the New York Electric Power Authority, said in a statement. The New York Electric Power Authority and New York State Park teamed up with Maid of the Mist to float the boats, while automation company ABB installed battery packs for the ships.

The shipping industry, which has a carbon footprint similar to that of aviation, is struggling to control the planet’s thermal emissions from traditional diesel-powered fleets. However, ferries account for only a small fraction of the carbon dioxide pollution in the transport industry. They pumped out about 11.6m tonnes of greenhouse gases in 2018, equivalent to about a year’s worth of emissions from three coal-fired power plants and less than a third of the annual carbon footprint of big airlines such as Delta Air Lines (before the pandemic).

Niagara Falls' new ferry is electric, but it's not alone.

But diesel-powered boats can be harmful to local air quality because they also release soot and nitrogen oxides, which can exacerbate smog. As ferries travel along the same route every day, pollution accumulates in nearby communities.

These frequent, relatively short journeys make ferries ideal for replacing diesel engines with rechargeable batteries. The Nordic countries, which have a long tradition of sailing, have led the way. In 2015, the world’s first electric vehicle and passenger ferry service began in Norway. Finland transformed its oldest operating ferry into an all-electric ferry in 2017. Since then, electric passenger ships have also appeared in Denmark, Spain, India and Thailand. Anil Srivastava, chief executive of Swiss battery maker Leclanche SA, said in January that more than 70 per cent of the world’s ferry traffic could become fully electric.

“It’s still some time before we see the electric boat revolution in the U.S., but it’s happening in the rest of the world,” said Patrick Finn, a maritime technology analyst at Theetius, a consultancy. According to Finn, the U.S. is catching up because building ships in the U.S. is more expensive than anywhere else in the world. Why is the price so high? He pointed out that the controversial Jones Act was a century-old law that required ships carrying goods between two U.S. ports to be made in the United States. This requires significant policy changes and investment to drive faster shifts to electric boats.

In addition, major infrastructure updates are needed to fully electrify the ferry fleet. The aging grid designed for fossil fuels needs to be adapted to more renewable energy sources. And it needs a charging station and enough power to be ready at a busy port. Niagara Falls Cruises are lucky enough to cruise through a powerful source of clean energy on each trip — the waterfall generates enough electricity for 3.8 million homes. “It’s basically the perfect application for (all-electric boats),” said John Nuszkowski, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at the University of North Florida who grew up not far from Niagara Falls.

Battery technology has not yet developed to the point where it can replace diesel engines for cargo ships and large ocean-going vessels. Hybrid ships or ships using alternative fuels are more promising in reducing pollution at sea. There is still a long way to go before electric boats “take over” the ocean.