Breathing new life into an old favorite

Breathing new life into an old favorite

Lake Maggiore in Italy is one of the most famous and picturesque in the world, and the San Cristoforo ferry has been a highly visible and much loved local fixture for decades. Tinkering with tradition is not taken lightly in this part of the world, but the transformation of San Cristoforo from diesel to hybrid-electric propulsion has been warmly welcomed among residents and tourists alike.

“We are excited to be working on projects like this,” says Mr. Paolo Mazzucchelli, Technical Manager of Gestione Navigazione Laghi, owner and operator of San Cristoforo. “People working and living on the lake are all positive. Everyone likes to see the old familiar vessels, but without the noise and the smoke from diesel engines.”

Electric motors generate less vibration that diesel engines, and Mazzucchelli reports that passengers appreciate the quieter, smoother ride. “For the captains, electric propulsion delivers instant torque from zero, and this gives them new possibilities for maneuvering the vessel, so they are very pleased as well.”

Everyone likes to see the old familiar vessels, but without the noise and the smoke from diesel engines.

At a critical crossroads

“Ferries are a very important part of life on the lake, and the local infrastructure,” Mazzucchelli says. “They help reduce road traffic congestion and add great tourism value. We have chosen to work toward an overall ecological transition of our operations, and this is critical to the future of the lake ferry system.”

Gestione Navigazione Laghi has a fleet of approximately 100 vessels operating on the Italian lakes Maggiore, Garda, and Como. “We have been very happy with the results of the San Cristoforo project. Now the plan is to continue with conversion of more ships,” Mazzucchelli confirms.

San Cristoforo - Image credit Gestione Navigazione Laghi
San Cristoforo - Image credit Gestione Navigazione Laghi

In with the new, not out with the old

San Cristoforo was built in 1965, equipped with an advanced propeller system for its time. During its 60-year life it has been renovated twice, Mazzucchelli reports.

“Spare parts are getting harder to find, but the vessel in general was still in good shape, and the hydrodynamics were still very good, so it made good economic sense to repower.”

He notes that it was also a good ecological decision: “Instead of using the energy and creating the emissions it takes to replace an entire vessel, we reduced the overall ecological footprint by replacing just the drive train.” The choice of hybrid-electric was driven by environmental considerations as well, he says. “With 100 vessels in operation, we have to be looking for ways to protect the environment. Our contribution is to choose technologies that can provide the greatest benefit for our surroundings.”

The right choices

The comprehensive retrofit project improved operational efficiencies by reducing the shaftline components and basing the new propulsion solution on a direct shaft line at both ends of the vessel. Controllable pitch propellers have been replaced with simpler, more efficient fixed pitch versions that help improve the overall fuel economy of the ferry.

Paolo Mazzucchelli, Technical Manager, Gestione Navigazione Laghi, Owner and operator, San Cristoforo.
Image credit Gestione Navigazione Laghi
Paolo Mazzucchelli, Technical Manager, Gestione Navigazione Laghi, Owner and operator, San Cristoforo. Image credit Gestione Navigazione Laghi

ABB’s scope of supply included new propulsion motors, diesel generator sets, transformers, switchboards and automation, including a system of Remote Alarm Monitoring. At the core of the modernization project is the ABB Onboard DC Grid™ microdrive specifically designed to help smaller vessels optimize their fuel efficiency by making the best use of available power.

From challenge to advantage

“The transition from variable to fixed pitch propellers presented the main challenge, and this has been solved brilliantly, even improving performance,” says Mazzucchelli. “The team found the correct propeller shape and dimension and matched this with the optimal engine speed.”

Hull-propeller interface is also critical, and both components had to be analyzed carefully to ensure compatibility. “We needed to harmonize everything in order to reduce consumption and improve performance. This was made possible by two main factors: the one was technological, the other was our crew and the commissioning team working together to resolve problems and optimize the new propulsion system,” Mazzucchelli relates.

We have chosen to work toward an overall ecological transition of our operations, and this is critical to the future of the lake ferry system.

Adapting the vessel’s operational profile was yet another challenge to be met. “The bridge dashboard offers advice to the operator to help them optimize power by compensating for wind and waves. The good results we are experiencing are made possible by all the parts of the system functioning well together.”

Not least, the new system provides a wide range of future reconfiguration possibilities, Mazzucchelli notes. “We are starting with hybrid-electric, but the system allows us to adapt in as technologies evolve, including replacing diesel generators with more batteries.”

Keeping past heroes fit for future service

The retrofitted San Cristoforo was delivered in September of 2021 and entered service in December. “ABB was always present and responsive throughout the process. Technology is important of course, but also the people. In many ways, the quality of service is more important even than the conversion itself. The boat will be operating for many years, and we need to know that they will be there to support us.”

Overall, it was not just a good investment of our money, but an investment in the future.

Despite its long history, Mazzucchelli believes that San Cristoforo sets a good example for the future for ferries many places in the world. “We operate in inland waters with short routes involving many maneuvers. This is hard, heavy service, so it provides an excellent test for solutions that could be used on other ferries,” he says. “At the moment the number of locations with infrastructure to support fully electric solutions is limited, but hybrid-electric options are viable many places, and upgrades can be made as all-electric solutions become more common.”

No stranger to recognizing the value of preserving revered icons, Navigazione Laghi has several veteran vessels in operation. Built in 1904, the steamship Piemonte is still in service on Lake Maggiore, joined by the motorship Torino, built in 1913. “San Cristoforo is 60 years old, and she could be showing the way for another 60,” Mazzucchelli maintains.

“This is a choice for the next generation. It works now, and it can be reconfigured to adapt to new technologies as they evolve. Overall, it was not just a good investment of our money, but an investment in the future,” he concludes.

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