Some Washington ferries switching to liquefied natural gas

SEATTLE -- Liquefied natural gas can catch fire under rare circumstances when vapors escape the super-cooled fuel, but its low cost and environmental benefits are making it common alternative to diesel.

The Coast Guard is now nearing the final okay to switch some Washington Ferries to LNG.

Ferry prices have gone up 12 times in the last 14 years, thanks in no small part to the rising price of diesel fuel. The state ferry system has 22 ferries running almost every day and spends $124 million a year for 17 million gallons of diesel.

In 2000, fuel costs accounted for 11 percent of the system's budget, but that number has jumped to 30 percent now.

Ferry mangers are completing plans to take the nation's largest ferry system into the next era by converting ferries to LNG, starting with the six Issaquah-class ferries.

"It is substantially less cost at today's dollars than petroleum fuel that we use," said Ferry system chief David Moseley. "In addition to that, the emissions into the environment are substantially less."

Using LNG, the ferries could cut their carbon dioxide emissions by 20 percent, their nitrous oxide by 90 percent and sulfur oxides and particulate matter by 100 percent.

"And the response is pretty much the same: 'Yea, that makes sense,'" Moseley said.

No fuel is risk free, and there have been cases of LNG fires. The gas must be kept at minus 256 degrees to keep it from becoming flammable.

Environmentalist point to the damage caused by getting LNG from the ground, but Moseley says any fossil fuel has its risks.

"So, it's kind of our mini-step into what we think is our longer term power solution, which is getting off of fossil fuels entirely," he said.

The first LNG vessels, which are considered the world's "greenest," are now sailing in Scandinavia without a hitch.

Seattle shipping giant Totem Express is building the first LNG container ships, and more buses are now using the gas. Even UPS is ramping up to 700 LNG trucks.

Local ferry passengers seem unconcerned about the potential dangers of LNG.

"A lot of places are going to natural gas," said Doug Merrill.

Moseley says passengers are right to feel comfortable with LNG.

"There are risks. There are ways to minimize those risks. Those risks are, in some ways, less than the risks of diesel fuel," he said.

The numbers work. Fitting six ferries would cost $75 million and save nearly $8 million a year. The return on investment would take about a decade, with 20 years of service after that. If those six ferries are successful, others could convert to LNG as well.

The ferry system will also be turning the Hyak into a hybrid by installing solar panels to charge giant batteries. Those batteries will then power the ferry while sitting on the dock, saving $21.5 million in fuel costs over the remaining life of the Hyak.