Up to the challenge of the open ocean

Up to the challenge of the open ocean

Zero-emission vessel ushers in a new era of sustainable ferry transport for Iceland

Not a typical ferry crossing, the journey between the Icelandic mainland and the island community of Vestmannaeyjar takes passengers and crew out on the open sea, at the mercy of the mighty North Atlantic. In these conditions, a robust and seaworthy vessel is the primary prerequisite. Behind the breakwater conditions change, and a nimble, dynamic craft is called for.

When the time came to replace the aging island ferry, meeting these disparate demands while satisfying growing environmental expectations from the authorities, tourists and islanders alike required new thinking, coupled with the wisdom that only experience can bring. The solution was a new ferry with electric power at its core, purpose-built to serve the present and future needs of Vestmannaeyjar.

Electric emerges as primary power

Hjörtur Emilsson, Customer Project Manager and responsible for shore charging systems on the project, tells that traditional diesel power was at the top of the list when the old vessel came ripe for renewal. “When we started looking at new ferry options back in 2008, we were not thinking electric.”

The project was put on hold during the financial crisis, and when economic activity picked up again, the Icelandic Government was looking for ways to kick-start a green shift on the island nation. “They determined that a zero-emission ferry would be a good flagship project,” Emilsson reports. Blessed with abundant geothermal and hydropower energy to provide clean electricity for battery charging, electric propulsion was deemed the natural choice for Vestmannaeyjar.

Safe and sound

The south coast of Iceland is shallow, generating sea swells that gain force as they approach land, even in fair weather, while Vestmannaeyjar harbor is protected but with limited space. “Safety is the number one priority, and the captain needs to have access to the necessary propulsion power during both crossing and docking,” confirms Johannes Johannesson, Chief Designer, ApS Maritime Engineering in charge of overall design and contact with the yard.

Electric power gives a shorter response time than diesel, allowing the captain to apply instantaneous full torque when needed. “This is especially critical in the restricted harbor space,” Johannesson says. The new vessel is also designed with as shallow draft as possible to accommodate shifting harbor conditions. “With the shallow harbor, we could not use a traditional V-form hull. We had to have a flat bottom, but we also needed cross-stability and a fast-acting vessel.”

The ferry connects the Icelandic mainland and the island community of Vestmannaeyjar despite the rough conditions of the North Atlantic.
The ferry connects the Icelandic mainland and the island community of Vestmannaeyjar despite the rough conditions of the North Atlantic.

As might be expected with an untraditional design, Johannesson recalls that varying opinions were voiced on the solution. “Some were concerned that the new design would lack sufficient seakeeping capabilities under extreme North Atlantic conditions, but the Icelandic Government trusted us. They believed in what we were doing, and their confidence was crucial. Performance had to be as good in open water as in the harbor, and I think we have succeeded.”

Johannesson has his own experience to confirm the vessel’s seaworthiness: “I have sailed on it in nine-meter waves. That is quite extreme, but even then you can feel it is very stable. If you are not aware of the conditions, when you look out, you cannot believe the weather is as harsh as it is.”

ABB ensures confidence

“We were familiar with the work ABB had done on other electric propulsion projects, and we were confident in their abilities when we presented them to the design committee,” Johannesson tells. “These are among the biggest battery and charging solutions for ferries on the market today. It was a major move for us, but also for ABB, and they were up to the challenge. Having ABB as the sole supplier of propulsion and charging systems made our job easier as well.”

The design team convinced the yard and the owner to go with ABB in part due to their proven staying power: “We know they will be there in the long run,” says Johannesson. “It’s like buying good insurance – you get more security for your investment. We know they won’t back out of their responsibility, including any future issues that might arise.”

When conditions are at their worst, diesel power is available to make a three-hour alternative route, but the standard crossing can still take up to 45 minutes. “That is a long time on electric power, but the propulsion system has been impeccable, and regularity has been very good,” Johannesson confirms, his claim backed up by the numbers: the ferry has been running every day since its arrival, with 1,800 roundtrips annually, and only one trip cancelled due to technical issues. “Even when the roads are closed, this ferry runs,” he says.

Listen to the locals

The Mayor of Vestmannaeyjar, Iris Róbertsdóttir, explains the end user perspective: “Around 2010, when the new harbor in Landeyjar opened for the first time, the sea route became the main means of public transport between Vestmannaeyjar and the mainland. Due to frequent trips and short sailing time, the ferry became the means of choice, while air transportation declined.” The islands also boast a large fisheries industry, she relates. “Daily delivery of fish products is essential for businesses in Vestmannaeyjar, and regular sailing between the island and the mainland plays a significant role in that important service.”

Iris Róbertsdóttir, Major of Vestmannaeyjar
Iris Róbertsdóttir, Major of Vestmannaeyjar

While the ferry is essential to the economy, there is a serious security issue to be considered as well, Róbertsdóttir reminds: “The eruption on Heimaey in 1973 called for immediate response and well-organized rescue measures. Fortunately, all the fishing boats were located in the harbor on this fateful night, and that made it possible to evacuate the whole island in only few hours. Dependable transport and short distance between ports can actually become a matter of life and death.”

Improving reliability and regularity has also provided a bonus boost for tourism, Róbertsdóttir reports: “Due to the shape and size of the old ferry it had to sail the three-hour route more often, which reduced the number of crossings and made planned visits more difficult. With the new ferry, a regular schedule using the short route is more often available.” That includes the harsh winter months, opening the door for increased winter tourism, she adds.

Not least, stakeholders saw the advantage of making visits to the island more sustainable, says Róbertsdóttir. “For example, now tourists can rent an electric car in Reykjavik and take the electric ferry to Vestmannaeyjar. That definitely enhances the environmental attractiveness of a trip to this exotic destination.”

A ferry for the future

The decision to go with electric power involved not only designing a vessel from scratch, but adding shore berths for charging, Róbertsdóttir says: “When we began looking at electric solutions to power the ferry, charging was a challenge, but there are many good options on the market now. When Iceland made the decision to go green as a country, the Government agreed to invest in modern charging stations.”

With the ferry up and running, Róbertsdóttir notes that the Government features the project in their marketing. “It has become a spearhead for a national shift to electric solutions, including the fishing fleet. In fact they are hoping to springboard on this project to introduce electric domestic flight by 2028, or even earlier.”

Summing up, Róbertsdóttir is well pleased with the overall outcome: “It was a successful step to introduce an electric ferry. We have experienced very positive response all around.” Not least, passengers and crew have praised the quieter operations, with less vibration and no exhaust, she says. “Even though some were skeptical in the beginning, no one today would go back to the old diesel ferry. Islanders are proud of the new vessel. With this new ferry, we believe Vestmannaeyjar is aiming for the future.”

Map of Vestmannaeyjar, Iceland
Map of Vestmannaeyjar, Iceland


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