It’s a Good Thing: Pioneering B.C. naval architecture firm floats greener tugboats

B.C. naval architecture firm Robert Allan Limited's low-emissions tugboats are welcome addition to marine transport.

Credit: Robert Allen Ltd.

Robert Allan Ltd.’s ElectRA 2100 Battery Electric Tug

Robert Allan Ltd.’s battery-electric and LNG/diesel vessels are a welcome addition to marine transport, which generates a rising share of greenhouse gas emissions

As the Canadian economy sprang back to life in 2021, attention turned to what’s been happening off our coasts. After all, roughly 25 percent of Canadian exports and imports, by value, are transported by some mode of marine vessel; around the world, marine shipping drives 90 percent of global trade.

While the container ships idling in Vancouver’s English Bay are an encouraging sign of economic activity, they’re also a visual reminder of the toll of port traffic. Marine transportation is responsible for 2 to 3 percent of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions—a number that could rise to 17 percent by 2050 if nothing is done, according to a Dalhousie University study.

Often lost in the discussion about the environmental impact of cruise lines or container ships is the workhorse of the port: the mighty tug. While most port pollution is caused by larger diesel-powered vessels, the cumulative impact of tugboats (some 1,200 are licensed to operate in B.C.) is undeniable. One local naval architecture firm, Vancouver’s Robert Allan Ltd. (RAL), has had a singular impact on the shape of those boats—and the push to make them greener.

This past May, HaiSea Marine Limited Partnership—a joint venture between the Haisla Nation and Vancouver shipyard Seaspanannounced plans to introduce three battery-powered and two low-emission (LNG/diesel) tugboats off the coast of Kitimat. The RAL-designed boats (which are expected to arrive in 2023) will provide ship-assist and towing services for LNG Canada’s new export facility—and deliver near-zero emissions when running on battery power.

RAL traces its roots back to 1930, when a young Scottish immigrant started designing vessels for B.C.’s fishing industry and coastal ferries. Over time, the company would hone its expertise in tugboats—continuing through successive generations of Allans. (Rob Allan, the founder’s grandson, is its current executive chair.)

According to president and CEO Mike Fitzpatrick, RAL is responsible for about 100 tugboats that get built each year—with a third built in Turkish shipyards, a third in Asia and the rest scattered around the world. Six of the 14 tugs that freed the shipwrecked container ship Ever Given from the Suez Canal in March were designed by RAL. In a typical year, Fitzpatrick notes, 80 percent of RAL revenue comes from outside Canada.

“We have local competition in some countries,” he says. “But on an international scale, with a big oil or mining company, we’re probably the only name on their speed dial for tugboat designers.”

RAL’s first foray into green tugs came in 2003, when Foss Maritime, a Seattle-based towing service, commissioned the firm to design the world’s first hybrid tug. That vessel, which runs on four diesel engines and 126 batteries, began working the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach in January 2009; according to a 2010 University of California, Riverside, study, it reduced emissions of soot by about 73 percent, oxides of nitrogen by 51 percent, and carbon dioxide by 27 percent.

A fully battery-powered tug, of course, will have an even greater impact on global waters. And Fitzpatrick is seeing growing interest around the world in RAL’s greener tugs. “Certainly in North America, Europe, Australia, there is a desire to provide some type of reduction in emissions—or have tugs able to be adapted to a lower-emission fuel or propulsion,” he says, projecting that “some type of battery/electric power” will eventually comprise 40 to 50 percent of RAL designs.

The challenge, says Fitzpatrick, is finding clients willing to pay the green premium. In Kitimat, LNG Canada was eager to get the social licence to complete its project, so having a greener fleet made sense. But globally, it’s still a hurdle for cost-conscious buyers (many of them clinging to 40- or 50-year-old tugs). “Where it’s not backed up by regulations or a willingness from the client, any desire to buy green often falls to the wayside.”