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Sailing towards a clean future with hydrogen

An eco-conscious engineer with a knack for innovative green technology, Joe Pratt has charted a professional course that combines two of his biggest passions: clean air and the open sea. With two decades of experience in hydrogen fuel cells under his belt, Joe Pratt began exploring clean mobility solutions for maritime transportation by designing electric tour boats for Crater Lake National Park in Oregon. In that time, he has seen hydrogen fuel cells come a long way since their initial development, as light-duty fuel cell electric vehicles stand poised to reduce costs by expanding the volume of fuel cells on the market. In his current role as CEO and CTO of Golden Gate Zero Emission, Joe Pratt is utilizing hydrogen fuel cells to achieve the ambitious goal of completely eliminating carbon emissions in the maritime industry. Through its Water-Go-Round project, the company will soon launch the world’s first commercial fuel cell ferry, ushering in a global paradigm shift for zero-emission marine vessels. Let’s learn more about this groundbreaking initiative!

What motivated you to co-found Golden Gate Zero Emission Marine?

I have a firm conviction that we need to clean up the air, because pollution and greenhouse gas emissions are much worse than we generally acknowledge. To give an analogy: my kids’ playroom gets a little messier every day, but we only notice the mess once it gets really bad. The same goes for our climate: it keeps getting a little worse every day, so it’s hard to notice how bad the situation has become. That’s what drives me personally: to do something to clean the air and get our climate back on track. Bringing hydrogen fuel cells into maritime is one way I can contribute to our climate efforts. I’m just trying to do my small part.

We hear a lot about land and air transportation in terms of emissions reductions, while maritime gets less attention in this area. What convinced you that hydrogen fuel cells are the best way to clean up maritime?

Golden Gate Zero Emission founders. From left to right: Thomas Escher, Dr. Joseph Pratt (CEO), Joseph Burgard.

Through my past experience with hydrogen fuel cells on land and at sea, I realized that maritime is the most convincing use case we have for implementing hydrogen fuel cell technology today. It demands massive fuel volumes and requires no costly fueling infrastructure. In many cases, you can fuel a vessel with just a truck, eliminating a huge share of the expenses. The other side of the coin is maintenance: an electric drive train requires much less maintenance than a diesel engine. That is a big pain point for the maritime industry not just because of the actual cost of the maintenance, but also the down time of keeping a vessel out of service, which can translate to tens of thousands of dollars in lost revenue. The other pain point is that fuel regulations keep piling up in the shipping industry. Switching to hydrogen will ensure a ship will continue to meet increasingly strict regulations throughout its 30 to 40-year lifespan. For all these reasons, more customers are considering hydrogen fuel cells. However, I realized that no one is providing the services needed for maritime companies to make the switch to hydrogen. That’s why I saw it as an excellent business opportunity and a chance to help the world.

How big of an offender is the shipping industry in terms of generating emissions?

If maritime shipping were a country, it would be the sixth-largest country in the world in terms of greenhouse gas emissions. Globally, shipping represents only a small fraction of total pollution, but other sectors have already ramped up their efforts to cut emissions. Shipping may only account for 5% of emissions, but if the sector fails to take action today, then soon it will be responsible for 20–30% of total emissions. That is what makes the shipping industry nervous, because its stakeholders want to ensure it remains one of the lowest emitters. If we can integrate renewable hydrogen, that will have a huge impact on our greenhouse gas emissions.

What role can maritime shipping play in driving a clean energy future?

I think the infrastructure side of shipping could play a driving role, since it’s an easier use case for hydrogen fuel cells on water than it is on land. In this way, ports can function as anchor points for establishing hydrogen in new regions.

I think it’s interesting to see the industry calling for a tax on its own fuel, so that it can find a solution to comply with increasingly strict regulations. That’s an incredibly strong signal.

For example, there are no hydrogen vehicles in the southeast United States, but you could start by introducing a few hydrogen boats in the port of Savannah, Georgia. That would demonstrate the benefits of hydrogen to the city and its residents, which could spark an interest in building a hydrogen fueling station near the port to fuel port equipment and trucks, which could then grow outward towards cars. That is one way that shipping can indirectly help hydrogen grow, even if it doesn’t lead the charge.

Modeling of the Water-Go-Round hydrogen ferry

Can you tell us about Water-Go-Round, the hydrogen-powered ferry designed by your company?

Our ferry is a 70-foot catamaran made out of aluminum, which will have 360 kW of Hydrogenics fuel cells and 100 kWh of lithium-ion batteries on board. When the fuel cells and batteries operate together, this power train can propel the boat at 22 knots for short bursts. With just the fuel cells, it can run continuously at 14 knots.

In terms of industrial vessels, some shippers like Ikea and Walmart are striving to achieve a green image by eliminating carbon emissions from their supply chain.

While we have built the vessel as a passenger ferry — with the capacity to seat 84 people and also carry a few bicycles — our agreement with the California Air Resources Board stipulates that we operate the vessel in a variety of uses, since California aims to clean up all kinds of harbor craft, including freight vessels, crew ships and other boats. For this reason, we designed a modular interior that we can reconfigure to serve as a ferry, tour boat, freight vessel for transporting packages between airports, as well as a research and survey boat. Not only is it a multipurpose platform for the purposes of this demonstration, it is also a commercial vessel. We are currently looking for operators interested in adding the boat to their regular service, in order to keep the boat running in commercial service after the demonstration.

What kind of fuel cell powers the ferry and how do you expect its cost to evolve in coming years?

We use the same proton exchange membrane fuel cells used on light-duty vehicles, and their cost varies between $1,600–2,000 per kilowatt depending on the manufacturer and volume. By 2021, automakers expect the number of light-duty fuel cell electric vehicles (FECVs) to grow by a factor of 20–30, which will lead to a drastic cost reduction that benefits everybody, not just automakers. We expect to see a 50% cost reduction in the next 3–5 years, followed by another 50% reduction in the 3–5 years after that. Many people are familiar with the drop in lithium-ion battery costs over the last 5 years, where every year has seen a double-digit decrease in costs. That’s where I believe we are headed with fuel cells.

Is the shipping industry as a whole implementing any measures to ensure emissions reductions?

Maritime shipping has gone from thousands of years with zero environmental regulations, to suddenly having dozens of regulations in the last twenty years. The International Maritime Organization implements these regulations, while shippers have an indirect voice in this process. One of the most interesting things I have seen is that the World Shipping Council, composed of the world’s major shipping companies, has asked the IMO (International Maritime Organization) to implement a fuel tax in order to fund R&D efforts into new energies and emissions reduction. I think it’s interesting to see the industry calling for a tax on its own fuel, so that it can find a solution to comply with increasingly strict regulations. That’s an incredibly strong signal.

What role can hydrogen play in reaching these new emissions targets in maritime shipping?

Hydrogen fuel cells are zero-emissions. They meet any conceivable emissions reduction regulation because they completely eliminate all emissions from the vessel. In terms of the pathway emissions in the supply chain, I foresee the cost of renewable hydrogen continually decreasing to the point where it is cheaper than hydrogen produced from fossil fuels. This is a matter of when, not if, since hydrogen fuel cells will supply zero-emission energy from well to waves.

Can any kind of ship, including existing vessels, implement hydrogen technologies to lower their emissions?

Modeling of the Water-Go-Round hydrogen ferry (stern)

We did a study at Sandia that looked at 14 vessels from across the world’s fleet, from small fishing boats up to the largest container ships in the world. In those cases, we found that we could replace the existing power train with a hydrogen fuel cell and put enough hydrogen on board to fuel missions of any length, whether that’s ten miles off the coast for fishing or 6,000 miles across the Pacific Ocean. A large percentage of ship types can convert to hydrogen fuel cells, either as a retrofit or new build operation.

How can shipping companies and ship operators benefit from switching to hydrogen?

It all comes down to the bottom line. At various points in the cost reduction timeline, hydrogen fuel cells will become more cost-effective for certain ships than traditional diesel or bunker fuel. If we hit our targets, some passenger vessels and tugs will already benefit from a lower total cost of ownership if they switch over to hydrogen today. In addition to lower costs, hydrogen can also bring in higher revenue streams.

I think the biggest barrier to entry for hydrogen fuel cells is unfamiliarity.

For example, operators of passenger vessels say they could craft stronger marketing campaigns by spotlighting the fact that their vessels run on clean hydrogen. Operators can also open up the use of their vessel to new operations. For example, by eliminating the noise, smoke and odors of a diesel engine, a clean and quiet vessel powered by hydrogen becomes the perfect venue to host weddings or corporate events. In terms of industrial vessels, some shippers like Ikea and Walmart are striving to achieve a green image by eliminating carbon emissions from their supply chain. In this way, shippers may pay more for clean ships, which will lead to higher revenue for ship operators.

How have you seen green technologies, and hydrogen in particular, develop over the course of your career?

From the late 1990s — when I first started looking at hydrogen fuel cells — until the late 2000s, most efforts focused on the technical side: developing operational fuel cells, improving their efficiency and lowering costs through technology.

When I talk about today’s hydrogen fuel cell technology and its benefits for the climate and operators, I start to see the light bulbs turn on in people’s minds.

But in the late 2000s, once the industry had arrived at a functional and attractive product with a sufficient lifespan, the focus shifted to reducing costs through manufacturing, such as reducing the number of components or improving the manufacturing process. That is the main shift I have seen over the last twenty years: from developing the technology to finding ways to reduce costs in order to get the technology onto the mass market. Those efforts have been successful, so now I think it will all come down to increasing volume.

How have you seen attitudes towards hydrogen develop over the course of your career?

I think the biggest barrier to entry for hydrogen fuel cells is unfamiliarity. Shipping is a very traditional industry, with only a few forward-thinking operators searching for new solutions. Most operators have never heard of hydrogen fuel cells and still think of the Hindenburg or the hydrogen bomb when the topic comes up.

Organizing an event in the city about renewable energies that uses this facility as a showcase would have a big impact on people’s awareness of hydrogen.

But when I talk about today’s hydrogen fuel cell technology and its benefits for the climate and operators, I start to see the light bulbs turn on in people’s minds. Time and again I see people go from knowing little about hydrogen fuel cells to advocating for their use. Cost reduction is the most important way to scale up hydrogen, and education can augment that dynamic so that people start to think about hydrogen. Anything we can do to educate the general public about hydrogen fuel cells is incredibly helpful. Outside the hydrogen community, most people do not even know about hydrogen technology. That is where we still have a lot of work to do to help all industries striving to reach the goal.

What efforts would you recommend for educating the general public about hydrogen?

With the Water-Go-Round, we plan to engage the local community as much as we can, as well as the mainstream press to get this story out there. Once the ferry is on the water, we want school groups to get on board and tour the vessel. On certain days, we may take school groups around the bay and over to the museums. We want to do everything we can to introduce this platform to the general public.

Our goal at Golden Gate Zero Emission Marine is to provide hydrogen fuel cell power trains for the entire industry, and we’re just getting started!

I think everyone with a hydrogen fuel cell car or fuel cell forklift facility should try to reach out to their local community in new ways, in order to get the word out there and help people realize the benefits of hydrogen. Air Liquide fuels the hydrogen fuel cell forklifts at the Coca Cola facility here in the Bay Area. That is something more people should know about! Organizing an event in the city about renewable energies that uses this facility as a showcase would have a big impact on people’s awareness of hydrogen.

How do you think it will feel when you finally see the hydrogen-powered ferry in action?

Boarding a silent, zero-emission, clean vessel and cruising over the water is going to be an amazing experience. Looking back on all the work we have done to reach this point will also be very gratifying for the whole team involved on the project. We will enjoy the ride and be eager to get back to work and see where we can go from here. We have spoken with many operators who want to see the technology in action, so I know that as soon as the Water-Go-Round hits the water, we’re going to be very busy with new orders. Our goal at Golden Gate Zero Emission Marine is to provide hydrogen fuel cell power trains for the entire industry, and we’re just getting started!

Do you have a message you would like to share with our readers?

When we launch the vessel in Fall 2019, I invite all your readers to come out and take a ride!