On the horizon: The first electric Mackinac Island ferryIt's a major step toward modernizing marine transportation

Mackinac Island’s first-ever electric passenger ferry is slated to begin plying the waters of the Straits of Mackinac in two to three years. 

Future passengers aboard the Chippewa will experience a much quieter, smoother and cleaner trip traveling to and from Mackinac Island. 

“The experience of the ride will be greatly enhanced,” said Jerry Fetty, CEO of the Mackinac Island Ferry Company, owner of the Chippewa, the first island ferry targeted for conversion from diesel to electric power. “The ferry will run a lot smoother and won’t have the vibration created by diesel motors. There will also be no fumes from the exhaust of the diesel motors … passengers will be breathing in more of the fresh air of the Straits.”

The Chippewa is a pilot project for the electrification of 28 Mackinac Island ferries. The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy’s (EGLE) Fuel Transformation Program last week awarded a $3.06 million grant to support the first-ever conversion of a Mackinac Island passenger ferry to zero-emissions electric power. 

“We’re really excited about this,” Fetty said. “We’ve been working on this awhile. It will take some time, but we want to do this right. This is significant for the whole area. I don’t think we totally understand yet the impact this will have.”

The much-anticipated project is part of a much broader effort to diversify the tourist-heavy economy of the Straits of Mackinac by expanding upon marine and marine transportation assets already in place. Modernizing marine transportation is among the Mackinac Economic Alliance's efforts to bolster the economy and create full-time, year-round marine and shipbuilding jobs in the Straits of Mackinac. 

“The (ferry) project is the first critical step in the strategy to upgrade and modernize marine transportation in the Straits of Mackinac,” said Chris Byrnes, who is director of the Mackinac Economic Alliance, the economic development arm of Mackinac County. The county includes Mackinac Island.

Economic officials envision the Straits of Mackinac as a hub of maritime development and innovation, as well as clean marine energy development. Several innovative, ground-breaking projects are in the works, or poised to launch. Key partnerships are being looked at to bring shipbuilding to the Straits of Mackinac. Other initiatives range from expanding ports to accommodate larger ships to the electrification of island ferries and other ships.

"(The ferry pilot project) certainly should make this strategy seem more attainable. The old adage that 'the first step is the hardest step' no longer stands in the way for those that had doubts that this vision could be executed," said Marty Fittante, CEO of InvestUP, the lead regional economic organization for the Upper Peninsula. "And this is not just a step, but a very big one at that. It is exciting to think of where this journey can lead. Seventy years ago, there was a vision to span the Straits with what is now an iconic Bridge. Have we just witnessed the proverbial footings bridging traditional maritime propulsion to electrification laid in the Straits this week?"

The Chippewa and Marquette II Hydro-Jet head to Mackinac Island side by side.One of the direct impacts of the pilot project is employment. Fetty said almost 100 percent of the work on converting the Chippewa, built in 1962 and in service in the Straits of Mackinac since then, will be done at Mackinac Marine Services in St. Ignace. That company is part of Mackinac Island Ferry Company. Fetty said one of his goals since joining Mackinac Island Ferry Company a decade ago has been to keep people employed year-round. Many of the jobs in the region are seasonal, dependent on tourism.

“Not only is this going to help us but it’s also going to help our economy,” he said. “There will be lots of other jobs that will be created out of this. Beyond that, if this conversion really does what we think it will do, it will cause other boats to be converted, not only ours but other fleets throughout the region. We will build that talent locally to do that -- this will be the place to come to have boats converted. It creates a whole other industry here for working on vessels.”

The Mackinac Island Ferry Company will replace two 1998 diesel engines with two brand new electric propulsion motors on the Chippewa. The conversion will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 14,152 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents and 887 metric tons of nitrogen oxides over the boat’s lifetime.

For Michigan, converting a ferry in the Mackinac Island fleet to electric will build on the state’s clean-energy leadership and help achieve goals of the MI Healthy Climate Plan to make the state carbon neutral by 2050. 

The grant covers half the cost of the project, which will include installing 1.5 megawatts in shore power infrastructure at the Mackinaw City ferry dock; electric power upgrades are also planned for the ports of St. Ignace and Mackinac Island.

The ferries are the primary means of transportation to Mackinac Island, serving about 500 year-round islanders and 750,000 visitors a year, with summer peak of more than 16,500 a day. During peak months, ferries make up to 125 round trips a day. 

Electrifying the Mackinac Island ferries was among the key initiatives in the Mackinac Island Transportation Master Plan, conducted by the Michigan Department of Transportation. The initiatives include modernizing the ferry fleet and freight ships serving the region. The long-term goal is to transition all 138 Upper Great Lakes ships in the 50- to 200-ton range to electric or hybrid electric power.

"This initiative is indeed the start of what could be a huge transformation of the industry.  However, it unquestionably offers tangible proof that bold vision that the area has offered to lead on electrification of the maritime industry is real," Fittante said. "In the end, the reality of transforming the fleet while welcomed and important is only part of the story.  The bigger story could well be that for already the second time this year, the Upper Peninsula has proven in a very significant way that it can lead the way with new and emerging technologies and sustainability standards."  

The Chippewa conversion project is already underway. The beginning process involves engineering for the conversion, redesign and modernization of the Chippewa, and then approval of those engineering plans by the U.S. Coast Guard. That process takes six months to a year, Fetty said. Once the engineering plan is approved, the heavy work of converting will begin and once completed, the electric Chippewa will go through sea trials with the U.S. Coast Guard to determine stability and safety. 

“It’s a rigorous process that all boats go through to make sure they're as safe as possible,” Fetty said. “Safety is the number one concern."

The 84-foot Chippewa is expected to carry 250 to 300 passengers after the electric conversion, redesign, and modernization.

Once the Chippewa has been successfully converted, work will begin on other ferries. Fetty said lessons and knowledge from that conversion will be applied to other ferries, which will impact the speed of conversion. A probable schedule is converting other ferries as they need repowering and are having their engines replaced. 

The United States is at the beginning stages of electrifying marine vessels. The Maid of the Mist catamaran-style boats at Niagara Falls are all electric. The company says the all-electric boats give “our visitors a better experience and (help) us do our part to protect the natural wonder and beauty of Niagara Falls.”

“Part of the reason we are doing this,” Fetty said, “is that as a company we are committed to going green and part of that is using renewable or green energies. We have a long way to go but you have to make that first step. It's the only way to learn.”
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.