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The little tug boat that could change the industry


Foss Maritime's hybrid tugboat looks exactly like this Dolphin model on the outside, but will be partially powered by a 600 horsepower battery. (Photo provided by Foss Maritime)

She will receive a final coat of white paint with green trim. Then she’ll slide into the ocean near Seattle to make sure she’s sea-worthy. If all goes well, she’ll sail south to her new home this November and begin the life of a tugboat--pushing ships and hauling barges hundreds of times her size--in the Los Angeles and Long Beach Ports.

Unlike the other tugs, however, this 5,000-horsepower boat, whose name has not yet been decided upon, will run on a mix of batteries, generators and diesel fuel. That’s right, it’s a hybrid tugboat.

“It will be the first one built in the world so it’s a pretty exciting project for all of us,” said Susan Hayman, a vice president of Foss Maritime, the Seattle-based company that is building the new tug. “We hope it will be an industry-changing thing.”

With their mammoth diesel engines and smoke stacks trailing puffs of gray, tugboats hardly seem like the vanguard for environmental sustainability in the transportation sector. But the launch of Foss Maritime’s $6 million hybrid model may change that image.

Indeed, this could be the initial wave of environmental stewardship in the gritty industry, with a tsunami of innovative, green technologies to come. Besides hybrid technologies, tugboat engineers are looking at more fuel-efficient engine designs, utilizing compressed natural gas, harnessing shore power when tugs are docked, and creating new fuel cells to create alternate power sources.

Some tugboat operators are switching to low-sulfur diesel fuel to cut back their emissions or even employing software technologies like those sold by Propulsion Dynamics in Long Beach, Calif. That company's software monitors the hydrodynamic performance of a tugboat, and recommends optimal cleaning intervals of the propeller and hull that will conserve fuel and reduce emissions.

“The big thing that’s happening is the greening of all sectors of marine transportation,” said Tom Kirk, director of technology and business development at the American Bureau of Shipping, an international regulatory body for the shipping industry. “People are worried and looking at the emissions coming from ships, harbor tugs, ports.”

Tugboats are linchpins in the American economy. Without a tug’s skillful guidance, ships and barges can’t navigate crowded harbors and the risk of oil spills and accidents increases dramatically. Each year, the boats with their comically large bows are responsible for helping transport 800 million tons of cargo, according to the association American Waterways Operators.

Many of the green innovations are motivated by Environmental Protection Agency air pollution regulations taking effect in 2014. New rules require marine diesel engines to reduce their nitrogen oxide emissions by 80 percent, among other things.

But tugboat companies have other reasons to think green. As the price of oil soars--already up 24 percent in 2008--fuel efficiency and conservation costs have become an overriding economic concerns for tugboat operators.

Albert Duplantis works as an operations manager in Lake Charles, La., for Seabulk Towing Corp. and has to fill the 20,000-gallon tanks on four tugboats with diesel fuel once a month. According to the Energy Information Administration, which keeps energy statistics for the government, the price of diesel fuel on the Gulf Coast has more than doubled over the last year.

So far, Duplantis has managed to stay profitable by passing on the extra fuel costs to his customers. “The ships are still coming in, but they’re just having to pay more to come in,” said Duplantis.

Clearly, though, the price of oil is a huge problem, and is driving some of the innovation in the industry. “People are trying to reduce their fuel costs by looking at things like vessel design, propulsion, hull design and fuel control systems,” said John Gormley, editor of Professional Mariner magazine. “Some people are repainting their hulls with lower friction paint.”

The jump in fuel prices is so grave that some in the industry are taking the opposite tack. Instead of going green, they are building tugboats that run on what’s known as bunker fuel or heavy fuel oil.

A heavy, black, tar-like liquid, bunker fuel can cost half as much as more refined diesel fuel, but it is an environmental hazard. The container ship accident last November in San Francisco Bay, which dumped 58,000 gallons bunker fuel into the ocean, killed thousands of birds and polluted beaches for months.

“Part of it depends on what you value as a company,” said Hayman of Foss Maritime. “From a cost perspective, you can see why companies would want to burn heavy fuel oil.”

Robert Hill, president of Ocean Tug and Barge Engineering Corp. based in Milford Mass., said the maritime industry is generally very conservative.

“They don’t embrace new things easily because their capital costs are so high. If you make a mistake, it costs a lot of money.” Nonetheless, Hill’s company is currently working on designs for three different clients that will employ hybrid technology in their new tugs.

“Everybody is taking a look at the business from top to bottom,” said Hill. “When they are looking at building new boats they are looking at ways to save fuel so they can save money. And hybrids are not only neat for the environment, they’re neat for saving fuel as well.”