Richmond-Based Company Leads the Sustainable Maritime Technology Industry

Corvus Energy and BC Ferries introduced two new hybrid vessels to sail in 2020

Roald Amundsen, the Hurtigruten hybrid polar cruise ship that was docked in Vancouver in Sept 2019 on its way to Antarctica after having come via the Northwest Passage. Corvus batteries allow it to operate with zero-emissions and low noise levels in ecologically sensitive areas and in harbour. (Submitted)

Look across the water from Vancouver’s English Bay and you’ll see a beautiful, blue expanse teeming with plants, animals — and humongous industrial ships lining the horizon.

Rain or shine, night or day, vessels carrying everything from coffee to chemicals float in and out of Vancouver’s harbour, leaving a trail of greenhouse gasses behind them. And in the Port of Vancouver specifically, breaks in the traffic are few and far between.

The Port of Vancouver is the fourth-largest seaport in North America, according to an article by the Globe and Mail. With that title comes remarkably high emissions — an issue that Corvus Energy is dedicated to addressing.

Founded in Richmond, Corvus describes itself as “the world’s leading supplier of safe, innovative and reliable energy storage solutions for all segments in the maritime industry.”

Sean Puchalski, the company’s Executive Vice President of Strategy and Business planning, points to two recent developments to demonstrate field’s importance to environmentalism.

“The conventional technology is diesel or heavy fuel oil engines, so great big engines that burn sort of the nastiest of fuel,” he says. “But there are international regulations that limit components of that. As of Jan. 1 this year, ships have to use lower sulfur fuel.”

The second development is the introduction of two hybrid ships designed by Corvus to the BC Ferries fleet. They also have two Seaspan ferries running between Vancouver and Vancouver Island.

Tessa Humphries, the communications manager for BC Ferries, says that partnering with Corvus was “a natural fit” for the company.

“Staying local is important to us, and Corvus is a Richmond-based company, and we needed batteries for the new ferries,” she says.

“These are our first hybrid electric ferries which is really exciting for us, and it’s a key milestone in our continued efforts to progressively lower emissions across our fleet.”

Each of the ferries, which can carry 47 vehicles and between 300 and 450 passengers and crew, will produce 20 per cent less diesel fuel than a conventional ferry. Four more hybrid models are currently being built to sail in 2020, and BC Ferries already has five other ships operating on natural gas.

Passengers on the hybrid ferries may notice that their journey is quieter and more spacious. The new models are not only greener, but also bigger and more modern.

Environmentalists in British Columbia could even see an entirely electric BC Ferries fleet within their lifetime. The hybrid ships have the capacity to become fully electric, an option the company is interested in pursuing if they’re able to secure the necessary resources.

“We don’t have the shore charging technology we need, and there are multiple facets that go into that,” says Humphries. “Potentially, that would be millions and millions of dollars, and at this point in time we need to look at that funding and where that funding comes from, but also it’s a bit challenging for us because each of our terminals are different.”

They would need to standardize the shore charging stations across all of their terminals so that ships that sail multiple routes would be able to charge up regardless of where they are.

“Right now we’re really excited about these hybrid ferries, and they’re launching on the shorter routes,” she says.

Hybrid batteries, such as those used by cars like Priuses, are powered by both an electric motor and a gasoline engine.

Corvus makes enormous lithium ion batteries for either hybrid or fully electric maritime vessels, offshore oil and gas equipment, and port equipment. In fact, they were the very first company to do so back when the company was created in 2009.

“We got the first mover advantage I guess,” says Puchalski. “We invested in new products the whole time to maintain that lead, so we have the largest market share, biggest array of reference projects, and sort of the biggest brand in our area.”

They may have been the only locals in the game a decade ago, but it has grown more competitive since then. According to Puchalski, Vancouver is home to “a cluster of interesting companies,” particularly on the “power generation and storage side” of the business. He names Ballard and Avalon Battery as two competitors he admires.

Still, he wishes that Canada was more similar to Norway when it comes to offering incentives for consumers interested in making the industry greener. Corvus has an office in Norway and has borne witness to the success of some of these initiatives. They also created one of their own there with the Ampere, the world’s first entirely electric car ferry.

“In Norway or Northern Europe generally, there are much greater incentives for end users and that’s really helped drive business over there,” he says. “For instance, even though we were founded in Canada, we export probably 85 per cent of our products to Northern Europe.”

Some of Norway’s incentives he’d like to see implemented in Canada are “grants funding for end-users [or product consumers],” a variety of subsidies for companies, and the NOx fund, which compensates people per-tonne of nitrogen oxide gas replaced by sustainable energy sources.

Regardless, he is looking forward to seeing industrial sustainability improve in Vancouver.

“Hopefully it will continue to develop as a centre of excellence for green tech,” he says.

But the money for making that happen has to come from somewhere.

Corvus is an investee of Sustainable Development Technology Canada, “a foundation created by the Government of Canada to support Canadian companies [which] develop and demonstrate new environmental technologies,” as written on SDTC’s website.

Rustam Sengupta, an investment lead at SDTC based out of Vancouver, plays a part in that process. He is responsible for encouraging companies to apply to SDTC as well as helping them through the process of writing proposals and preparing their cases for investment from Ottawa.

While he has not worked closely with Corvus, he visited their Richmond office as an SDTC representative and found that they were “doing well and significantly impacting the environment.”

“The maritime industry is a huge contributor to greenhouse gas emissions and not very well-known because it’s not happening in front of our eyes,” says Gupta.

“But we’re very happy to know that the standards that are being put in place in terms of sulfur and others have sort of focused the maritime industry to improve itself and make better, cleaner technologies.”

He adds that making the maritime sector greener is a priority not only for SDTC, but for the federal government at large.

“Companies like Corvus have taken the first steps, which is great,” he says.