UVic’s green ship project gets grounded

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UVic has delayed plans to build a hybrid “green ship” as the cost of transforming the ship will be much higher than originally thought.

UVic acquired Tsekoa II in late 2010 for $1 with the understanding that ship would be used for research. Fisheries and Oceans Canada originally had planned to decommission the ship. UVic partnered with four other universities, including the University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University, and planned to use the ship as a coastal research facility for its Ocean Networks Canada Observatory, as well as a means to test new hybrid technologies for the marine sector.

With a total budget of $20.5 million, including funding from the Canada Foundation for Innovation and the B.C. Knowledge Development Fund, UVic planned to retrofit the ship with green propulsion technologies such as electricity, hydrogen fuel cells and low-emission diesel fuel.

“The demands, in terms of requirements for research vessels on this coast for universities, exceed what is available in terms of the usual research vessels we use that are operated by the coast guard,” says Kim Juniper, a professor in UVic’s School of Earth and Ocean Sciences and lead scientist on the green ship project.
Earlier this spring, UVic sent out requests for proposals from shipyards to lengthen the ship and install the scientific equipment. The resulting bids, however, came in substantially higher than UVic and its consultants had anticipated, causing the project to be shelved for at least 18 months.

“We had been told by our consultants that, based on their intimate knowledge of the marine sector, they estimated that the refit would come in somewhere in the range of $8–$10 million dollars, maybe $12 million at the upper limit,” says UVic Vice President Research Howard Brunt. “The bids came in substantially more than that, and really at that point made the refit of the Tsekoa II not economically viable.”

UVic subcontracted Montreal-based BMT Fleet Technology, a specialist in ship design and naval architecture, to help plan the refit of the ship. Two bids were received from shipyards based in Vancouver and in Washington state, giving costs of between $15–$18 million for the refit of the Tsekoa II, close to 90 per cent of the budget for the entire project.

“It was roughly 40 per cent above what we had believed the cost would be,” says Brunt.

Brunt says there has been some speculation suggesting that the national shipbuilding strategy announced June 2010 might have caused the labour costs of refitting and constructing vessels to rise significantly. The shipbuilding strategy granted two major contracts to Canadian shipyards, worth a total of $33 billion, potentially causing the price of work at those shipyards to rise to meet the budgeted cost.

Both Juniper and Brunt believe that the delay on the project could be a blessing in disguise.

“In many ways this is an opportunity,” says Juniper. “In the five years that we were developing this project, trends in alternative propulsion systems changed, and there was a significant move away from fuel cells, because of their limitations, towards plug-in hybrid battery technologies.”

Now that UVic has time to select a more appropriate ship or commission a purpose-built ship, Juniper believes that the project will ultimately have more value to the scientific community and the shipbuilding industry as a whole.

“I think in the end we’ll probably end up with a cooler ship that does more for the same buck, simply because we’re more aware of the technologies we can and can’t use.”

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