There's a proposal afoot to build electric ferries in Auckland. If it happens, the ferry fleet on our harbour could be completely decarbonised within 10 years.
It would mean the elimination of carbon emissions and a cleaner Hauraki Gulf. Also, more ferries on more routes, with greater passenger safety and a better ride with little noise and no diesel smoke. Plus, hundreds of jobs, local investment opportunities and local manufacturing with export potential.
It's hard to think of anything not good about this. But it isn't happening. Why not?
Last year, before moving out of lockdown, the Government set up an Infrastructure Reference Group (IRG), whose job was to receive bids for "shovel-ready" projects that could help rebuild the economy. The budget was $3 billion.
The companies behind the e-ferries project applied for $20 million. Catalyst funding, they called it, amounting to less than half what they needed to get the project started. They planned to raise the rest privately. The bid failed.
The project is a joint venture involving Fullers360, as operator, and EV Maritime, as boatbuilder, with support from HamiltonJet and Vector. The funding was destined for boatbuilding, not operations. Fullers says its role is "to facilitate the testing and prove the electric ferry technology on the Hauraki Gulf".
They propose ferries of three sizes, with passengers on a single level, so no more treacherous stairs, with quick embarking and disembarking and proper bike storage.
The first phase, costing up to $45 million, would introduce two carbon-fibre electric ferries and one aluminium electric-hybrid ferry to the Auckland network, as a pilot for the larger scheme. Phase two, with $350 million raised privately, would build fleets for Auckland and Tauranga. Phase three would expand to other parts of New Zealand and into export markets.
Fullers and friends say the project will "stimulate $500 million to $900m of sustainable construction activity", with 300 "high-skilled jobs created in five regions". Fullers anticipates a reduction in its carbon emissions of 1.5-2 million tonnes by 2050.
Ferries won't solve Auckland's transport problems. But they do have an important role, and Fullers has expansion plans that could include coastal suburbs like Te Atatū, East Coast Bays and the Tāmaki estuary.
Surprisingly, there is no official strategy for ferries in Auckland.
In its Regional Public Transport Plan 2018-2028, Auckland Transport (AT) speaks vaguely of "planning options for the future evolution of the ferry system" and contains a throwaway reference to "investigating low-emission ferries". That's it.
It's not for want of trying. Two years ago, AT tried to create a new ferries strategy, but the process collapsed. AT said the operator bids were too expensive. The operators praised AT's "goodwill" but said the agency didn't understand ferries.
What became clear is that the process needs a jump-start. Which is exactly what the shovel-ready rebuild seemed to offer.
Auckland and Tauranga are not alone in wanting electric ferries. In Wellington, the East by West company says it will have one, made locally, in service before the end of April. But that ferry will have to be recharged after each trip, which makes it impractical for the quick turnaround demands of Auckland.
So what happened to the Auckland bid? The IRG received 802 applications, from the public and private sectors, with a combined value of $33 billion. They including 73 from Auckland, channelled through Auckland Council, which ranked the top 30 and focused on projects already under way.
That was understandable. The council knew it was bleeding revenue because of the pandemic (the latest estimate is close to $1b will be lost). It was desperate to keep its existing projects alive.
It was not desperate, though, to identify new works that might help it build back better. "New Ferries" was on the list of 73, but council said only that they "may include electric" and did not include them in its top 30.
That's one reason e-ferries have not been funded: the council did not sell the project well and gave it a low ranking.
From the 802 bids, IRG chose 177 to recommend. They included 17 from Auckland, worth a total of $684m: about 38 per cent of the total funding of $2.6m.
Cabinet accepted all 177. It didn't nix the e-ferries but sent the proposal to the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority (EECA) for analysis.
Lukewarm official support isn't the only factor. Remarkably, the criteria the IRG was asked to use did not specifically include climate change.
Despite this, the IRG did try to impress on the Government the importance of environmental as well as economic goals. "The IRG expects the Government's overall environmental and climate change objectives will impact on any decision making," it said.
Also, it suggested an "infrastructure sustainability" rating used in some Australian states could be deployed here. But that hasn't happened.
Others have weighed in. Lawyers for Climate Action wrote to the Government last May, concerned that "the criteria for shovel ready projects … do not refer to climate change, and do not specifically include either the impact on domestic greenhouse gas emissions, or New Zealand's capacity for adaptation to the effects of climate change over time".
LCA president Jenny Cooper QC said they wanted "assurances the Government will make impact on greenhouse gas emissions and climate change resilience core parts of its assessment for all post-Covid-19 stimulus spending".
Finance Minister Grant Robertson responded: "We have in mind all of the things that matter: creating jobs, making sure we can transition to that low carbon environment, growing productivity, and keeping the economy moving. We continue to balance those in our decisions about the infrastructure projects."
And that's a problem, right there. When a low-carbon goal is just one of the criteria it risks being knocked out by the others. Unless you make climate impacts a filter all projects must pass through, you're not taking it seriously.
Still, that shouldn't be a problem for Auckland's e-ferries. They tick all of Robertson's boxes. Surely, if there's the will, there's a way to make it work. It's only $20m.
Gareth Willis, AT's ferry services manager, says his agency is keen. "We are aware of the shovel-ready bid made by Fullers360, and we are looking forward to working with them and industry partners to delivering this exciting initiative."
Robertson, this time in his capacity as Infrastructure Minister: "Due diligence on the project is being undertaken, as well as negotiating its scope and structure with the applicants. Once that process is complete IRG ministers will make a decision on whether the project will be funded."
A spokesperson for EECA confirmed that and said a decision is likely "within the next two to three months". We still could have a fully electric, expanded fleet of ferries on the harbour by 2030.
And if the bid fails?
Fullers' CEO Mike Horne: "We are committed to the scale replacement of diesel ferries with a sustainable fleet of electric, hydrogen or hybrid ferries [and] we will make best endeavours to progress should shovel-ready funding not come to fruition."
So they could happen anyway, but more slowly and less transformationally. That would be a shame.
But this saga points to something bigger.
Electric ferries are not dead in the water, ba-da-boom. But their failure to date reveals a disturbing gap between the climate-related goals we're told are in place and what can actually happen to projects that try to achieve those goals. Please, we need that gap to close.