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B.C. Ferries eyes infrastructure-bank loan to pay for billion-dollar-plus vessel replacement

The bank, a Crown corporation, has just loaned B.C. Ferries $75 million toward the cost of its electrification program for four new Island-class ferries and on-shore charging infrastructure

B.C. Ferries is eyeing the ­Canada Infrastructure Bank as a potential lender to help finance an upcoming ­billion-dollar-plus major-vessel-replacement ­program and new terminal ­infrastructure.

The bank, a Crown corporation, has just loaned B.C. Ferries $75 million toward the cost of its electrification program for four new Island-class ferries and for on-shore charging infrastructure. The loan amount covers less than 50 per cent of the cost of the overall project.

It’s the first time B.C. Ferries has partnered with the bank, said B.C. Ferries president ­Nicolas Jimenez.

“That’s important to us because it is an institution whose mandate really aligns with ours, which is to find opportunities to invest in public infrastructure that does really important things. In this case, it helps us green our fleet.”

The new electric Island-class vessels will be built in Romania by Damen Shipyard Group. The first vessel is expected in B.C. in 2027.

Charging infrastructure will be installed at terminals for the Nanaimo-Gabriola Island and Campbell River-Quadra Island routes, where the new ferries will be deployed, so they can run solely on electricity.

B.C. Ferries hopes to replace older C-class vessels — the ones with “Queen” in their names — serving the busiest routes between Vancouver Island and Metro Vancouver, potentially adding up to seven new ferries.

The company released conceptual designs in February, and a request for proposals is expected to go out this year.

Jimenez called it a “massive” program: “That will be in the billions, not in the hundreds of millions.”

B.C. Ferries has already discussed the major-vessel-replacement program with the bank, he said, but decisions still need to be made about what it will entail, including how many vessels to order and what form the new vessels will take.

“They are aware of it. They know it is coming. So we are all pretty excited,” Jimenez said. “If this relationship works for the Island class, hopefully we can make it work on the C-class as well.”

One thing that still has to be decided is what kind of propulsion system the new vessels will have. “We hope it is battery-electric-hybrid but we haven’t finalized that,” he said.

If the new ferries run on electric power, they will be fully charged between sailings, when vessels are unloaded and loaded.

The company will look at the cost of providing ships and determine what it can afford before seeking funding, Jimenez said. “There’s a few steps before we get to another potential partnership with CIB,” he said.

Another issue is the cost and technical feasibility of supplying energy to the ships, how many terminals to focus on and terminal upgrading costs.

“You can just imagine that’s going to be a very big number, a very complicated project because it is going to be bringing transmission and fairly substantial energy supply into some very busy and urban terminals.”

Major vessels scheduled to retire between 2029 and 2032 include the Queen of Coquitlam, Queen of Alberni, Queen of ­Cowichan, Queen of New Westminster, Queen of Surrey and Queen of Oak Bay.

B.C. Ferries may be looking at a life extension as well for some ferries.

When the new Island-class ferries arrive, B.C. Ferries plans to redeploy the four Island-class vessels now serving the Campbell River-Quadra Island and Nanaimo-Gabriola Island routes to serve the Crofton-Vesuvius, Quadra Island-Cortes Island and Denman Island-Hornby Island routes.

Those four vessels are hybrid but currently operate on diesel because charging infrastructure is not yet available at their terminals.

Jimenez said the federal bank is also interested in loaning $85 million in the future if B.C. Ferries decides to electrify the terminals where the redeployed Island-class vessels will be based.

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