Homeless in Vancouver: The Port of Vancouver and the future of cruise-ship pollution

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      A stink over the summer, about pollution from cruise-ships and shipping in general, at the largest port in France had me wondering about the situation closer to home.

      I can at least report that the Port of Vancouver has not been idle where the problem of idling cruise-ships is concerned.

      In 2009 the Canada Place cruise-ship terminal became the first in Canada and the third in the world to offer electrical shore power for cruise-ships, as part of the port authority’s long-term Energy Action Initiative. And from 2010 to 2017 there has been a 39.77 increase in the net reduction of greenhouse gas emissions from cruise-ships docked in Vancouver.

      But first some background.

      On July 6 Guardian story reported that shipping accounted for up to 10 percent of air pollution in the large port city of Marseilles, France, according to environmental campaigners.

      In addition to industrial shipping—such as tankers and cargo carriers and steady ferry traffic to and from Corsica and North African countries like Morocco and Algeria—an unspecified percentage of the shipping pollution plaguing the so-called “first port of France” was said to come from cruise-ships.

      According to the Guardian, in 2017, Marseilles saw a total of 444 cruise-ship visits, bringing some 1,487,313 cruise-ship passengers (and all the economic benefits that implies), not to mention an unspecified amount of air pollution.

      The pollution problem with large cruise ships stems from the fact that their engines burn particularly dirty, high-sulphur (SOx), heavy fuel oil. This is bad enough at sea but it can be that much worse when one of these floating towns is docked in port, right beside your town.

      That’s because a cruise-ship in port has to keep running its engines and polluting, in order to generate onboard power (hopefully somewhat cleaner, diesel-burning auxiliary engines, but still…)—unless, that is, the port provides an electrical shore power hookup and the cruise-ship has been fitted to make use of it.

      The Guardian story does not say whether the Marseilles port authority provides electrical shore power for cruise ships, just that EU regulations require cruise ships to switch to a cleaner diesel fuel, with lower SOx levels while docked in EU ports.

      One would expect more electrifying hookups in France

      Actually, In 2015, the Marseille Fos Port authority trumpeted the introduction of shore power service for compatibly equipped ships berthed at the port. The service was launched in conjunction with two cruise lines: Corsica and Sardinia, which would, between them, refit at least three liners to be compatible with the new quayside power network—expected to be up and running by October of that year.

      In its news release, the Marseille Fos Port claimed that the $6.37-million shore power refit would result in significant reductions in noise, fuel consumption, and air emissions:

      “For each ship, the change will eliminate CO2 and particle emissions equivilent to more than 3,000 vehicles per day on the 64km route from Marseilles to Aix, while NOx emissions will fall by the equivilent of 65,000 vehicles per day.”

      All this led me to wonder how cruise-ship pollution is being dealt with right here in our own port city of Vancouver—reportedly a destination for 14 cruise lines.

      In 2016 the Georgia Straight reported that Vancouver “expected to host 840,000 cruise-ship passengers arriving on 237 vessels…a two percent increase in the number of passengers who came in 2016.”

      The story was written days ahead of what was expected to be a record arrival of nearly 16,000 passengers on three cruise-ships, Saturday, May 20, 2016.

      And less than a month ago, the local media was all aflutter over the impending September 30 arrival of the Norwegian Bliss—”the largest cruise-ship ever to visit Vancouver…“, with 20 decks and room for nearly 6,000 people.

      That’s a lot of people visiting Vancouver aboard a lot of cruise-ships.

      To put things in perspective, though, Vancouver’s total of 225 cruise-ship visits in 2017 represented only a little over 50 percent of the 444 cruise ships that visited Marseilles that year. While Vancouver’s 2016 passenger visits of 840,000 was similarly 56.4 percent of the 1,487,313 passenger visits to Marseilles in 2017.

      All the same, I went straight to the authority—the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority—to find out what was being done to reduce the potential pollution from visiting cruise-ships. (I’m writing the post now because it took a few months to get the data.)

      The cruise-ship to shore power situation at the Port of Vancouver

      There has been surprisingly little coverage of the Port of Vancouver’s efforts, beginning in 2009, to install quayside electrical hookups at the Canada Place cruise-ship terminal. According to a 2014 story in the Vancouver Sun, the $9-million electrification program was done in partnership with the Canadian and B.C. governments, B.C. Hydro, and Princess Cruises and Holland America Line, two of the 14 cruise lines that use the docks at Canada Place.

      The piece in the Sun led with the fact that, in 2014, less than a third of cruise lines docking at Canada Place were using the provided electrical shore power, five years after the Port of Vancouver introduced it, along with economic incentives—all in an effort to reduce greenhouse gases and particulate emissions from cruise-ships running their engines in port.

      According to the Sun, in 2014 there were a total of 243 cruise ship calls to Vancouver but only 98 of the vessels used available shore power. That was only 40.32 percent of the year’s cruise-ships. But, it turns out, the actual percentage of hookups in 2014 was significantly lower and three years later, lower still.

      Canada Place shore power statistics from 2010 to 2017.
      Vancouver Fraser Port Authority

      According to information emailed to me Thursday (October 18) by an official with the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority (a.k.a. the Port of Vancouver), the figure of 98 cited by the Sun referred to the number of cruise-ships in 2014 that were “shore-power-capable”. Only 76 of which successfully connected to shore power—31.27 percent of the cruise-ships that visited Vancouver in 2014.

      The shore power data provided by the Port of Vancouver covers the years 2010 to 2017 and show related annual fuel savings, net greenhouse gas emission reductions (tCO2e) and the reduction of critical air contaminants, in addition to the numbers of shore-power-capable ships and successful connections. It does not include the total number of cruise-ships that docked at Canada Place.

      But another document on the Port of Vancouver’s website gives total cruise-ship visits for 2008 to 2015, while the Georgia Straight article, referenced above, provides the number for 2016. And working backwards from an estimated seven percent increase in 2018 cruise-ship traffic provides a cruise-ship total for 2017.

      So, we can see that the rate of shore-power-capable cruise-ships successfully connecting to shore power has improved somewhat over seven years (in 2017 it was 77 percent). But we can also see that the overall rate of shore power use has stayed low.

      Clean, inexpensive marine electricity is shore pricey

      According to the Port of Vancouver figures, in 2010, out of a total of 177 visiting cruise-ships, only 44 used shore power (24.85 percent). The usage rate rose to a high-water mark in 2013, when fully 82 cruise-ships, out of a total of 235, used shore power (nearly 35 percent). But since then the rate has ebbed considerably.

      In 2017, only 54 of a total of 225 visiting cruise-ships plugged in at Canada Place, putting the total rate for the year at 24 percent, just below what it was in 2010.

      The big bump up in shore power usage in 2013 may be explained in part by the “additional jib, or connection point, to further facilitate connections”, that was installed that year.

      But the explanation for the stagnant rate of shore power use has to be due to the small number of cruise lines that have been willing to spend the significant dollars to retrofit their vessels to take advantage of the quayside electricity provided by the Port of Vancouver.

      An official with a cruise line industry association explained to the Vancouver Sun in 2014 that retrofiting a single cruise-ship to accept shore power can cost as much as $1 million. But a cruise line is not likely to recoup this high cost via either the reduced harbour dues ($4,000 to $5,000) offered by the port to vessels using shore power, or the more economical cost (versus bunker oil or diesel) of the electricity provided by B.C. Hydro.

      In 2009, only two out of 14 cruise lines visiting Vancouver signed up to use the shore power at Canada Place: Princess Cruises and Holland America Line.

      By 2014, according to the Vancouver Sun, the number of participating cruise lines was up to four: “Princess Cruises with six ships, Holland America with three, and Celebrity Cruises and Disney Wonder, with one each”.

      This was still less than a third of all visiting cruise lines. And though it was twice as many cruise lines as 2009, it was not twice as many cruise-ships. (I have not received the participating number of cruise lines and ships for any subsequent year.)

      Only part of the solution to cruise-ship pollution

      Yet, despite flat growth of shore power usage, the Port of Vancouver’s shore power numbers indicate both a 40.96 increase in fuel savings between 2010 and 2017 and a 39.77 increase in the net reduction of greenhouse gas emissions from docked cruise-ships docked at Canada Place.

      According to the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority, its focus is reducing emissions rather than achieving zero cruise-ship engine activity in port. This latter goal, it says, is unrealistic because even if a ship is shore power-capable, it may not be able to connect in port due to immediate maintenance issues, or operational requirements.

      Another reason, explains the port authority, is the IMO 2020 regulations that will require all ships to lower their SOx emissions by 2020:

      “…many cruise ships will need to switch to low sulphur fuels, invest in emission reduction equipment—such as scrubbers—or potentially use new alternative fuels. Some have already made the switch. If a cruise line has invested in scrubber technology, for example, to abide by the IMO 2020 regulations, they may not be inclined to also invest in shore power technology.”

      And actually, cruise lines have had to choose between the high optional cost of shore power retrofits and the mandatory cost of meeting government pollution minimums for a good eight years now; a fact that probably helps explain the low adoption of the Port of Vancouver’s shore power, if not the stats showing increasing pollution reductions from shore power.

      Other competing demands to reduce SOx and NOx

      Since January 1, 2010, the European Union has required that the fuel used by ships ‘at berth’ in EU ports be limited to 0.1 percent SOx content. And there was a January 1, 2015, deadline for shipping lines to comply with second-phase North American Emission Control Area (NAECA) regulations and reduce SOx content in ship fuel to 0.1 percent inside U.S. and Canadian coastal waters. and third-phase NAECA regulations to crack down on the nitrogen oxide (NOx)-content of ship fuel came into effect in 2016.

      Complying with these government standards is not optional and means either using low-SOx fuel oil (LSFO), or diesel (to meet the reduction in NOx), or installing some kind of scrubbing system to remove pollutants from the exhaust. No matter which solution is chosen, it means an increase in operating overhead.

      On the other hand, the expensively retrofitted ability to use shore power can only be used at the small fraction of ports in the world that have so far installed shore power—including 10, or more ports in the United States, at least three in Canada: The Ports of VancouverHalifaxMontreal, and 17 or more in Europe.

      So far,10 of the 14 cruise lines that visit Vancouver have decided that the overall benefit of electrical shore power just isn’t worth the cost of retrofitting their cruise-ships.

      LNG is the future but shore power will have its place

      The AIDAnova—first LNG-powered cruise ship—at Meyer Werft launch, August 2018.

      Now that there is widespread awareness of marine pollution and growing political will to end the era of dirty, heavy-oil marine fuel, it is a virtual certainty that the next generation of cruise-ships will increasing be powered by liquefied natural gas (LNG), dramatically cutting both energy costs and pollution.

      LNG-carrying cargo vessels have been powered by LNG for 50 years. There is a wealth of data showing how LNG, compared to conventional marine fuels, slashes emissions—NOx by 85 to 90 percent and SOx and “soot” particles by close to 100 percent. There seems to be less agreement about the degree to which a switch to LNG will cut greenhouse gases.

      In 2017 there were reportedly 16 confirmed orders for large LNG-powered cruise ships, representing a quarter of all the cruise tonnage on order that year.

      One of these LNG-powered cruise-ships—the AIDAnova—is nearing completion in Germany. The first of seven LNG-powered cruise ships ordered by the leisure travel company Carnival, the AIDAnova should now be undergoing final fitting-out and sea trials and is scheduled for delivery by the end of 2018.

      At the same time, the availability of shore power will continue to spread to more and more ports around the world—possibly becoming mandatory in major EU ports by 2025. And the ability to use shore power will, therefore, increasingly be a standard feature built into new shipping vessels.

      Which is to say that the Port of Vancouver made a forward-looking decision to begin installing shore power connections at the Canada Place cruise ship dock in 2009. No doubt electricity will remain the cleanest and most efficient way to power docked cruise-ships for a long time to come.

      Whether cruise-ships will be able to squeeze under the Lions Gate Bridge for a long time to come is another matter. (September’s gargantuan Norwegian Bliss only managed the feat at low tide. And at 69.3 metres, the AIDAnova couldn’t possibly make the bridge’s 61-metre clearance!) 

      Stanley Q. Woodvine is a homeless resident of Vancouver who has worked in the past as an illustrator, graphic designer, and writer. Follow Stanley on Twitter at @sqwabb.