EDITORIAL | Incat goes electric: Bass Strait should be a showcase for electric catamaran ferries

Incat's 151-metre fully-electric-powered Ro-Pax design (Photo: Incat)

As obliquely mentioned recently in its comments following the Tasmanian state government’s controversial, completely illogical and inadequately explained decision to purchase two conventional steel monohull Ro-Pax behemoth ferries, locally based ship builder Incat has been researching, working on and experimenting with electric propulsion for its large fast, and very safe, catamaran Ro-Pax ferries for more than two decades.

This is unsurprising and entirely appropriate since Tasmania is the only Australian state offering true and reliable renewable electricity generation. Tasmania generates at least 90 per cent of its power using hydro electricity while none of Australia’s seven much larger mainland states and territories are able to reliably provide more than 20 per cent of their electricity from renewable sources. Indeed, Tasmania frequently exports excess electricity to the Australian mainland via undersea cable..

Thus, the state’s ludicrous decision to purchase two large, heavy, diesel fuel-guzzling ferries from Finland is made even more ridiculous and short-sighted when the latest and very carefully considered concepts from Incat are examined. Tasmania is often referred to as Australia’s “mendicant state” in that it is the poorest state and heavily dependent on support from the larger, richer mainland states, most notably in terms of Bass Strait “freight equalisation” payments. For it to be spending AU$800 million or more dollars of taxpayers’ money in Finland when the same transport task could have been undertaken, at much lower capital cost, by a very reputable local company is insane.

Even worse, with the simultaneous development of appropriate electric propulsion systems, the fuel cost differential between the environmentally clean, Incat-proposed, electric-powered ships and the comparatively dirty, gas-guzzling Finnish ferries will be simply astounding. Tasmania should, and easily could, be renowned as the “renewable state”!

It can only be hoped that the Finnish deal falls over as, embarrassingly, did Tasmania’s previous attempted foreign ferry purchase from Germany’s Flensburger yard did when that company collapsed last year. Given its dubious CAPEX record and its completely ignorant and arrogant approach to a very important local company, it is impossible to understand the Tasmanian government’s decision making processes.

Illustration highlighting some key features of the 151-metre electric Ro-Pax ferry (Photo: Incat)

Returning to Incat’s proposed electric ferries. They will be offered in many shapes, sizes and speeds. As the drawings from the company’s online brochure show here, they will be available in Ro-Ro, Ro-Pax, and pure Pax versions and in monohull or catamaran configurations. They range from 47 to 151 metres in overall length and can travel at service speeds from 12 to 27 knots under purely electric power.

150-metre double-ended Ro-Pax ferry (Photo: Incat)

Very importantly, these significantly lighter all-aluminium vessels will not be lugging around enormous amounts of very heavy steel. They will also have highly refined, low resistance hull shapes. That obviously means they will require much less power and consume far less fuel, electricity, LNG or diesel, to carry the same payload than conventional steel monohulls. On their record to date, the Incat catamarans will also be significantly safer than their conventional counterparts. That is a very important but oft forgotten consideration.

47-metre electric harbour ferry (Photo: Incat)

The possible enhancement of electric propulsion systems, seemingly science fiction stuff not so long ago, is now a proven reality. While practical electric systems are available here and now, the promise of hydrogen fuel cells and energy storage systems will make for even greater improvements.

65-metre electric ferry (Photo: Incat)

As the Tasmanian government completes its seemingly senseless decision to purchase ships from Finland, Incat is certainly not suffering. It has three large aluminium, diesel-powered catamarans ranging from 76 to 130 metres under construction and more on order. They are all, of course, for foreign customers.

It is a pity, though, that the local Tasmanian Bass Strait ferry service cannot be made a showcase of Tasmanian innovation and shipbuilding capability while significantly reducing both capital and fuel costs and, very importantly, emissions. It is a pity, too, that Incat’s first electric powered ship is unlikely to operate locally where it would be so appropriate.

In 1996 Incat entered the Solar Boat Challenge on Canberra’s Lake Burley Griffin. Top speed under solar power was just short of 10 knots and won the highest speed trophy. After 34 miles at an average speed of six knots the endurance trophy was also secured. (Photo: Incat)

Neil Baird

Co-founder and former Editor-in-Chief of Baird Maritime and Work Boat World magazine, Neil has travelled the length and breadth of this planet in over 40 years in the business. He knows the global work boat industry better than anyone.