The Washington state ferry system is exploring using liquefied natural gas as a way to save money on fuel prices.

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The Washington state ferry system is exploring using liquefied natural gas as a way to save money on fuel prices.

Ferry officials want to switch six boats from handling diesel to natural gas, the Kitsap Sun reported. WSF director David Moseley told the newspaper he’d like go to the 2013 Legislature with a security and operations plan approved by the Coast Guard and ask to begin the retrofit program.

Washington would be among a handful of agencies pursuing new natural-gas vessels or converting diesel boats. Staten Island Ferries received a federal grant to retrofit a vessel. Meanwhile, Quebec Ferries Company contracted to build two LNG ferries and is taking bids for a third.

“We don’t think it’s crazy. We don’t think it’s radical,” said George Capacci, WSF’s deputy chief of operations and construction. “We think it’s the logical evolution of marine propulsion.”

Ferry officials say converting the boats to take natural gas could cut fuel costs in half. The switch to natural gas could also reduce particulate matter and sulfur oxide emissions, as well as slash nitrous oxides and carbon dioxide.

But the biggest challenge, officials said, may be convincing the public that it’s safe.

Capacci said gasoline in the cars on the ferry is much more dangerous than liquefied natural gas.

“Safety is our paramount goal,” he said. “We would not do anything that would be unsafe. The Coast Guard would not let us do anything that would be unsafe. Public perception is the main challenge.”

The state Legislature provided $1 million last session for the plan: $750,000 to add LNG-fueled ferries to the state’s security plan and begin public outreach, and $250,000 to request proposals for the conversions.

Washington State Ferries estimates it will cost $103 million to retrofit its six Issaquah-class boats. Officials think they could save $184 million in fuel costs by the time the boats are retired, for a $71 million return on investment, the newspaper reported. The retrofit work would be paid off in 10 years.

The state ferries use more than 17 million gallons of fuel a year at a cost of $67.3 million.

Officials project the cost of the low sulfur diesel currently used in the boats to climb from $3.77 a gallon to $4.03 in 2027. By comparison, liquefied natural gas delivered to the boats is forecast to cost $1.41 in 2015 and peak at $1.92 in 2027, a savings of 52 to 60 percent over diesel, the Sun reported.

A March 2010 study by Glosten Associates and another by Cedar River Group in January recommended shifting to liquefied natural gas.

The natural gas that would propel ferries is the same used for heating homes and cooking, except it’s cooled to minus 260 degrees until it condenses into liquid. In that state, it takes up 600 times less space and can be stored and transported.

Liquefied natural gas would be delivered the same way – by tanker truck at night – and on the same schedule as diesel, the Sun reported. The nearest storage facilities are in Delta, British Columbia, outside of Vancouver; and the town of Plymouth, near Tri-Cities.

With no natural-gas fueled ferries operating in the United States, there’s still a lot of regulation writing to do before one can sail.

Washington State Ferries has gotten conceptual approval from the Coast Guard for the Issaquah retrofit and redesign of the new 144-car ferry. Though the first two 144s will be diesels, five more boats would be added between 2027 and 2029 under WSF’s long-range plan.

Information from: Kitsap Sun,