Skip to content
Join our Newsletter

All-electric tugboats ready to charge into action in Vancouver harbour

There are just six electric tugboats in the world, and two of them are set to ply the waters of Burrad Inlet

As an older model diesel tugboat roars to life on Vancouver’s industrial waterfront, a plume of black diesel exhaust erupts from its stacks and drifts skyward.

“That’s what we are trying to get rid of, completely,” says Sander Bikkers, president of SAAM Towage Canada. “That’s why it’s important that we get started.”

The tug company officially launched its zero-emission alternatives Wednesday – two all-electric tugboats capable of safely bringing massive ships to dock while keeping about 2,400 tonnes of carbon out of the atmosphere per year.

That’s equivalent of taking 600 gas-burning cars off the road.

When they officially enter service, they’ll be two of just six all-electric tugboats in the world.

Sander Bikkers, president of SAAM Towage Canada, stands at the controls of the first all-electric tugboat deployed in Vancouver’s harbour. | Brent Richter / North Shore News

Low-carbon solutions

Bikkers said the company’s leadership first contemplated electric tugs when planning in 2019 for their future fleet needs. They learned then that it would be doable, but at an up-front cost 60 to 70 per cent higher than a diesel. That might have killed the project, but Bikkers said SAAM turned to their partners on the harbour, including Oldendorff Carriers and Teck Resources, which owns the metallurgical coal export facility Neptune Terminals, for support. Through CleanBC, the province chipped in $8.4 million.

Bikkers said everyone involved shared a commitment to cut GHG emissions out of their supply chains.

“There is intrinsic motivation from all of us to really get the industry to change,” Bikkers said. “If you want to start changing history, this is the exact place where you start.”

The boats were designed by local naval architecture firm Robert Allan Ltd. and, like most tugs on the world’s waters, they were built in Turkey’s SANMAR shipyards.

One of the e-tugs has been named the Volta while the other will be named in honour of the səlilwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh Nation), whose members were on hand Wednesday to bless the launching of the vessels.

The tugs’ electric motors put out 5,000 horsepower, backed up by stacks of Corvus Energy batteries – enough to run about 50 electric vehicles.

Just above SAAM’s dock is a new 3.5-megawatt transformer from BC Hydro, which the crew have dubbed Optimus Prime.

The charging cables are so heavy, they’ll require a small crane to manoeuvre them into place.


Better marine technology

On the water, Bikkers said they’ve only had glowing reviews from the tug captains at the controls. Unlike a conventional engine, there is instant torque without any rumbling and revving.

“You get instant feedback from the boat but you don’t hear it and you don’t feel it,” Bikkers said. “This is absolutely a completely different level of operating a vessel. It’s truly, truly something different.”

That’s also good news for the nearby aquatic life, Bikkers noted, which will have to contend with a fraction of the noise pollution that diesel engines make.

Docking and escorts in the harbour tend have a bit of a natural rhythm that follows the tides, which means there will always be plenty of time to ensure the e-tugs are fully charged when they’re needed.

Electricity is cheaper than diesel, and over time, electric tugs will require less maintenance and repair than traditional vessels, Bikkers added.

But there are trade-offs.

After 10 to 12 years, they expect the batteries will have degraded to a point that they won’t be suitable for tug use anymore – about the same lifespan of a diesel engine before it needs an overhaul. But, Bikkers said, the batteries will still have more than enough capacity to be downcycled and put to use elsewhere.

And because the technology is new, it faces more stringent regulations, including the requirement to have an engineer on board, something Bikker said should change as regulators better understand how they perform.

“When something is new, it takes some time to adjust,” he said. “But our idea and our projection is that these ships are far easier and safer to conduct than any other vessel.”


Age of electricity

SAAM can’t claim to be the first company to introduce a zero-emission tugboat – that title goes to HaiSea, a partnership between Seaspan and the Haisla Nation, which launched the first one in the world in 2023. Two tugs have followed, and all three HaiSea vessels will be put into service at LNG Canada’s terminal in Kitimat.

Unlike Seaspan’s electric tugs, SAAM’s are staying put, designed specifically for use in Burrard Inlet.

While the age of electricity is arriving in Vancouver’s harbour, naval architects around the world are turning their minds to other methods of reducing carbon output from shipping, including the use of sails and gyroscope devices that assist engines, along with alternate fuels like hydrogen, methanol, ammonia and LNG. In Antwerp, there is one hydrogen fuel cell tug operating, but hydrogen is much more readily available there, Bikkers said.

Here on the West Coast, BC Hydro supplies almost entirely clean energy largely thanks to hydroelectric dams.

B.C.’s Emergency Management and Climate Readiness Minister Bowinn Ma welcomed the launch of the electric tugs.

“Although these are the first electric tugs in the port, we are hoping they inspire others to make the switch,” she said.

[email protected]