Ellen, the first electric ferry in the world

Written on 21 October 2020

Greta Thunberg sailed across the Atlantic, reminding the world that travelling by sea is more sustainable than travelling by air. But it has to be said that not all maritime transport is sustainable, and tourism very often is not, regardless of transport. Many people have long argued that there should be limits to the possibility of discharging fossil fuels into the sea for recreational purposes, and although the impact is undoubtedly lower than the impact of air traffic, maritime transport too has come under the spotlight because of its lack of sustainability. Today, at last, there is an alternative, which could give us a glimpse of the future of this type of travel. It is an electric ferry, recently inaugurated in Denmark. Her name is Ellen.

The future of short- and medium-haul maritime transport

The project for an electric ferry was financed as part of an innovation and research programme called Horizon 2020, for a total investment of over 21 million Euros. Its journey began about five years ago and involved the design of the world’s first ferry powered entirely by electricity. The biggest challenge in this context was to build a sufficiently large battery – currently the largest of its kind.

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Ellen’s journey begins

Ellen is a medium-sized ferry, no different from those that normally cross the Strait of Messina. It is 60 metres long and 13 metres wide. It is suitable for transporting cars and people and gets charged at the port – just like electric cars can be recharged at the appropriate columns – every night. Once fully recharged, it can cover a distance of just under 40 km, or 22 nautical miles, at a maximum speed of 15 knots. Ellen currently travels between the islands of Ærø and Als in southern Denmark.

Faster and more efficient than traditional vehicles

As well as being environmentally friendly, Ellen is also faster than her “competitors” using fossil fuels. The journey between the two islands takes about 55 minutes, compared to 70 minutes on regular ferries. Ellen’s secret lies in the lightness of the materials used, which allow this electric ferry to optimise its energy consumption. Aluminium was preferred to steel, with the sole exception of the hull. For the deck’s furnishings, recycled cardboard was preferred to wood. Moreover, there are no onboard ramps at all: the boarding takes place via the port’s ramps. This considerably reduces the weight of the ferry, balancing out the two battery rooms below deck which contain over 42 modules that make up Ellen’s formidable engine. Another element missing from Ellen’s equipment is an emergency generator. The crew is also “light” since Ellen’s fully automated system requires just three people to manoeuvre.

Electric ferries can help us make maritime transport sustainable

Ellen is the first electric ferry in the world, the first to emit neither CO2 nor particulate matter. This is a formidable innovation, which could completely change the way we understand maritime transport. The reduction in emissions, thanks to this first experiment, has been qualified at around 2000 tonnes per year. Although the overall cost of an electric ferry is expected to be higher than that of its traditional equivalents, long-term management still means a 40% saving, since electricity costs much less than fossil fuel.