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Port of Seattle Terminal 91

Q&A: How to build a more environmentally friendly port

This April, the Port of Seattle along with the Port of Tacoma, Northwest Seaport Alliance and Vancouver Fraser Port Authority committed to zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Part of that effort includes creating electric infrastructure for ships and vehicles to charge at while docked, and encouraging partners to electrify their vehicles and equipment.

The Port of Seattle in 2009 became the first U.S. port to offer shore power at two berths. The Port is expanding shore power to an additional pier where Norwegian Cruise ships will dock. The $17 million project is expected to be completed by 2023.

The Washington State Wire spoke with Alex Adams, interim director of the maritime environment sustainability department at the Port of Seattle, Graham VanderSchelden, project manager for the air quality and sustainable practices team for the Northwest Seaport Alliance, and Peter McGraw, maritime media officer for the Port of Seattle about port electrification.

Aaron Kunkler: Could you run through what port electrification is, and some of its potential benefits? A large piece of it is hooking cruise ships up to an on-shore electricity source so they don’t have to power the ship using fossil fuel burning engines, right?

Alex Adams: “So electrification, in our mind, is a broad topic. It’s providing electricity as an energy source instead of burning conventional fuels. So broadly speaking, the benefit of electrification in Seattle is — and this is also the case in Tacoma — is that the source of electricity here is hydroelectric. It’s extremely clean electricity, extremely clean power. So when you exchange fossil fuels for that clean electricity source, that was a really significant almost zeroing out of emissions in general. 

And electrification at the port means more than just shore power. It involves providing clean electricity for cargo handling equipment, for fleet vehicles, and for a variety of other things. And the most significant emission reduction opportunity right now is providing shore power for ships. Cruise ships are one of the major sources of emissions within the Port of Seattle’s portfolio. The cargo ships belong to the Seaport Alliance and Graham can talk a little bit about shore power there, but the Port of Seattle has been providing shore power since 2005. 

In 2009, we became the first port globally to offer shore power connections to cruise berths at Terminal 91. And currently, we’re in the process of designing and installing a third shore power connection at our Pier 66 cruise terminal. We’ve observed a really high level of use and interest in that shore power connection from the cruise lines. 

In 2019, the last full cruise season before the pandemic, of those shore power capable ships — not all ships have shore power connections — the 89% of those that do connect, we reduced or avoided emitting about 2900 metric tons of CO2. The ambitions of the Port of Seattle and the Port of Tacoma, and Graham can speak to the the Seaport Alliance, but the ambitions are to, to the extent possible, leverage the fact that we have extremely clean electricity here to upgrade infrastructure and provide that option for the industry to electrify as one opportunity to decarbonize. In addition to electricity there are bio and renewable fuels that some may opt to use, but we see electricity as a major opportunity and an advantage to this effort here.” 

Peter McGraw: “Just a little factoid that people find interesting is, you know, one of the crucial You know, when a cruise ship plugs in and uses as much power in a day as Columbia tower does.”

Graham VanderSchelden: “So the concept of electrification, as Alex said, really is our biggest opportunity to reduce both greenhouse gas as well as pollutant emissions. We’re talking about addressing climate change, as well as environmental justice and just general air pollution issues through electrifying operations. Our electrification efforts sort of sit within or underneath our Northwest Ports Clean Air strategy, which is this collaborative strategy between the ports of Tacoma, Seattle, the Northwest Seaport Alliance, as well as the Port of Vancouver up in British Columbia. Just this spring we adopted an update to that strategy which puts forth the vision of phasing out emissions by 2050. 

So really, what we’re looking to do there is zero out these sources of pollution related to port activities throughout our air basin, in our air shed. And obviously we have a focus on improving environmental health outcomes for near-port communities and reducing those emissions that occur in our harbors, especially as part of that effort. And so as I said, electrification is what we call a zero emissions technology. If you have an electric car there’s no tailpipe on that piece of equipment, so you’re not emitting anything. And the same is true of an electric semi-truck, or an electric piece of cargo handling equipment. It’s also true of a ship at berth, when it plugs in and shuts down the engines, and doesn’t have to burn fuel for its power to create power for on-board. 

There’s more than just the ships. For the Northwest Seaport Alliance and the Port of Tacoma, we’re really looking across the board at how [we can] start to implement these zero-emission technologies in the trucking sector. That’s particularly important and it’s quite complicated, because we don’t really own any of the trucks. It’s working with industry partners and trying to make these things economical, and making sure they do the job. Also the cargo handling equipment, which is the big pieces of what we call non-road equipment that operate on the terminals and move containers around. Those are another sector in which electrification is coming, hopefully sooner rather than later. 

And then there’s a couple of other sectors like the rail sector where having technology that’s economical and proven is farther out, but it’s also one [in which] we need to get [to zero emissions] eventually, and the rail lines are gonna be a big part of that. And then tugboats are another piece of our pie as well. So those two sectors are going to be a much, much bigger challenge. But they are part of what we’re thinking about in the long-term underneath that 2050 goal.”

AK: One of the big determinants of whether electrifying transportation actually results in less emissions is what fuel is being used to power the electric grid. In Washington State, we have a lot of hydroelectric power, but are there still benefits for other places in the country that may have a dirtier mixture?

GVS: “I think from the climate perspective you have to be really mindful about where you’re getting your electricity, and like you’re saying, one of the things that is a very important part of the bigger picture is the move to more renewables, integrating more renewables into the grid, and especially in other areas that don’t have these great hydro resources that we have. From that perspective, I think that’s relatively simple that other ports will all have different situations when it comes to the emissions that occur within their electrical grids. 

On the other piece of the pie, though, and how zero-emission technologies can be very beneficial even if you’re running on dirty or power, is if you’re really trying to address environmental health disparities near your ports. Basically what you’re doing there is you’re taking a truck that once ran through a neighborhood and emitted a bunch of black smoke and impacts populations, and making that into a zero-emission truck that no longer does that. And so any emissions would be wherever the power is generated, and hopefully that is in a more remote area, and in less close proximity to [environmentally vulnerable communities]. So I think there still can be a number of significant benefits, but of course it’s going to be context dependent, and what sort of problems the individual is trying to address.”

AA: “I just had one other thing to add about lessons to share with other ports. Our philosophy [with] the electrification and decarbonization effort, is that we can’t do this alone. We see electrification and decarbonization happening in many sectors. The Northwest ports here have really tried to take a holistic approach to this type of work, and that we feel strongly that partnerships are really important, both public and private. Washington is home to some pretty large companies that have also made some pretty large commitments to address climate change. And so opening the door to those collaborations for how our seaports can work with companies, especially equipment manufacturers, and up and down the supply chain to identify how we can  make this a reality [is important]. 

The ports have pretty limited control over the equipment used on the ports and the ships that are operating, most of whom have a global itinerary and require international policy. Our working hypothesis is that by bringing more people into the fold, and by broadening the tent and seeking out collaboration and alignment around this sort of shared vision, to improve air quality, reduce environmental health disparities, and address climate changes is the ticket to the future.” 


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