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Changing Light Bulbs: BC Ferries Battles Fuel Costs

Savings sought as two German-built vessels sit idle many days.

Andrew MacLeod 4 Dec

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee's Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria. You can reach him here.

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The Coastal Celebration ferry. Photo: Kam Abbott.

On Friday, Nov. 21, B.C. Ferries president and CEO David Hahn cut a ribbon on the Coastal Celebration before it carried its first passengers between Swartz Bay and Tsawwassen. Since those initial runs, the new ferry has spent no more than two afternoons a week in service.

Even when the Spirit of B.C. was sidelined with engine trouble on Dec. 2, leaving just one ship working on one of B.C. Ferries' busiest routes for several hours, the Celebration remained tied at the terminal.

Spokespeople for B.C. Ferries were unavailable to explain why, though the company reportedly planned to start the new vessel only on Friday and Sunday afternoons.

The failure to use the new ferry, however, is consistent with what the company's done with the Celebration's two sister ships, the Coastal Inspiration and the Coastal Renaissance. The three new ferries were built in Germany for $542 million. While the Inspiration has been in regular use, the Renaissance spent some time in service before being reduced to three days a week this fall, then nothing.

The Tyee reported two weeks ago that the three new ships may be lemons, with problems that include heavy fuel consumption, noise and vibration. Those problems may all be related to a design flaw that has the ships sitting too high in the water, the story said, causing the propellers to suck air.

While B.C. Ferries is working on the various problems, the fuel guzzling may prove the most difficult to solve. B.C. Ferries is taking steps to reduce the ships' fuel use, but observers wonder if the company, with the board's approval, simply ordered the wrong ships.

Plan to trim fuel use

A November B.C. Ferries report on "Fuel Conservation Initiatives" outlined what the company is doing to reduce fuel use on the Coastal Class and C Class vessels, which includes the three new ships.

"BC Ferries expects to improve fuel consumption on the C-Class and Coastal Class vessels through greater information sharing between each of the crews and resulting operational improvements," the report said. "By understanding how one (or more) crews are achieving improvements in fuel consumption, all crews can improve their fuel burn."

The company also planned to replace 700 halogen lights on each of the new ships with LEDs, it said, "which reduces the power requirement of the generators and results in fuel savings."

It planned to reduce engine warm up times across the fleet, and to tweak the route the Coastal Inspiration takes on the Duke Point to Tsawwassen route.

"BC Ferries is in the process of optimizing the navigational path or track that the vessel sails," it said. "Utilizing this track enables the vessel to follow the shortest path, thereby enabling lower average crossing speeds and therefore lower fuel consumption."

Finding the best path would also minimize the amount of time the ferry spends in what is known as "mode 2," where both fore and aft propellers are used, "resulting in additional fuel consumption."

Fuel is a major cost and consideration for B.C. Ferries, which is in the process of removing the fuel surcharge it has applied for the last three years. While the price of fuel has dropped in recent months, it's not expected to stay low.

And yet internal company figures for June obtained by the Tyee show the new vessels burn much more fuel than do older vessels with similar capacity. The Coastal Inpiration burned an average of 9,719 litres of fuel to make a round trip between Tsawwassen and Duke Point. Used on the same route, the Queen of Cowichan burned 6,378 litres of fuel per round trip.

While the ferry company may be able to change the light bulbs on the ships, there are basic things about the vessels that will prove more difficult, if not impossible to fix.

Consider, for example, the horsepower of the engines on the new vessels. Higher horsepower generally requires greater fuel consumption.

The new vessels, according to figures recently added to B.C. Ferries' website, have 21,444 horsepower engines. That's nearly double the 11,860 horsepower of the Queen of Cowichan, which carries a similar number of vehicles and passengers. And it's even more than the 21,394 horsepower of the Spirit vessels, which each carry 100 more vehicles and 500 more people than do the new ships.

Fuel use said to meet requirements

The contract for the new vessels has never been released to the public. A summary on the B.C. Ferries website says, "Vessel performance guarantees related to speed, carrying capacity, manoeuvrability and fuel consumption."

It does not specify what the criteria are, but says there would have been financial penalties if the ships failed to go as fast as they were supposed to. It also says B.C. Ferries could reject the ships if they were not "built to the highest shipbuilding standards for noise and vibration."

Representatives of both FSG and B.C. Ferries have said the new ships passed during the sea trials and meet all the requirements.

Or as Stefan Krueger, a Hamburg engineering professor who was involved in testing the ships, put it in an e-mail, "during the sea trials it was found out that the ships were exactly performing as predicted by all our calculations and model tests, which confirmed the design as such as well the calculations."

Due to "contractual obligations," he couldn't give specific fuel consumption figures, he said. "The consumption was in line with the calculations, and there was no air drawing of the propellers or cavitation found. The ships were exactly performing as predicted by the different experts involved."

If anything, they surpassed expectations, he said. "The ships achieved a slightly higher speed than contracted (equivalent to a lower consumption at contractual speed), which I would consider as normal from my knowledge."

Krueger did allow the total fuel consumption may be pushed up at times when the ships are moored. "When the ships are stopped and the propellers are still idling, a significant power is required to turn the propeller under zero thrust condition, which costs also a significant amount of fuel."

The designers tried to get around the problem, he said. "The ships were optimized to approach the dock as quickly as possible, berth her with both propellers and stop the engines when moored. That was why we spent much of the design work to achieve fast stopping and acceleration times."

He added, "I would not consider a long idling time of the propeller as normal or useful, because of the related fuel consumption."

'Why did they order these ships?'

The question then, said Save Our Ferries' Nelle Maxey, is whether B.C. Ferries ordered the wrong ships for the route in the first place.

Despite concerns about saving fuel, she said, the company appears to have ordered hugely inefficient vessels. "It just seems so apparent that these ships aren't the appropriate ships for a public transportation system," she said.

The design might be innovative, but it was untested, she said. They also appear to be too large for the number of people travelling between Vancouver Island and the Lower Mainland, especially given the drop in traffic this fall.

"I don't see any upside to them at all," she said. "Why did they order these ships?"

Getting an answer to that question is difficult.

Despite spending $150 million a year on B.C. Ferries, and despite Premier Gordon Campbell and Transportation Minister Kevin Falcon's recent $20 million boost to the company, the Transportation Ministry really does appear to have stepped out of paying attention to the ferries. An FOI request for all records related to the performance of the new vessels got a response saying the ministry has no such documents.

Falcon said the public is protected from whatever goes wrong with the new ships. "Unlike the fast ferries we were stuck with in the 1990s that still don't operate and work, these are boats that are provided under warranty," he said. "Any defects in the ships themselves have to be repaired at the cost of the manufacturer and the builder and that's the way it should be."

B.C. Ferries might not be using the new ships much, he said, but figured "That to me is asset utilization." As for concerns about fuel use, he said, "they're more efficient than earlier vessels, so I don't even understand the nature of that complaint."

Board did 'proper analysis'

Nor does the B.C. Ferry Services Inc. board chair have much to say. The new ships are working out, Elizabeth Harrison said, "From our perspective, great."

Asked why they aren't being used more, she said, "David Hahn's spoken on this. That's a management issue... I think he's been more than forthcoming in giving a full answer. It may be that you guys don't want to hear or understand a full answer."

When the board approved the purchase in September 2004, she said, it did its best with the information available. "We did our proper analysis," she said. "We looked at what we had at that time to look at to make a reasoned judgment."

Just two members of the B.C. Ferries board, according to B.C. Ferries website, have marine experience.

While there have been a few changes to the board since 2004, when directors approved the contract with FSG, their overall nautical experience was no greater back then.

The original board was appointed by the government in 2003, with further members selected by the board itself. Asked why there aren't more people who know about boats directing the company, Harrison said, "There are very few people in the province who would fit that description."

There were problems when the ferries were managed as a crown corporation as well, Falcon said. "I'm not convinced the old oversight was frankly any better than what we have now."

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