The ABCs of Hybridizing the Fleet
ALFA BETA accelerates the energy transition
By Sarah Reynolds Westin

y gosh, trying to be efficient with energy while fishing?” says Jeff Turner, the owner and captain of a family fishing operation called F/V Mirage, based in Sitka. “That’s no easy feat.”

Recently, the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association (ALFA) selected Turner for one of its Boat Energy Transition Accelerator (BETA) pilot projects, made possible with a $700,000 grant from the US Department of Energy (DOE) via its Vehicle Technology Office (VTO).

“Everyone’s trying to be more conscious of our world. Cut our fuel. Be stewards of our workspaces,” Turner says. “So why shouldn’t I be a little cleaner too?”

Fellow Sitka resident Linda Behnken, ALFA’s executive director, used her organization’s website and word-of-mouth to notify members about the BETA opportunity, which is how Turner got involved. He was already motivated by a commitment to using natural resources responsibly and making choices that help sustain the environment. “I like what I do for a living. It’s so community based—every aspect,” he says, “which is all the more reason to protect what we have.”

Patricia Morales | Alaska Business
Efficiency Options
These pilot projects have been about ten years in the making. ALFA had begun looking into efficiency options because it wanted to measure and create a baseline for how energy was being used by fishing fleets. Factors from speed, idling, onboard lighting, and hybrid systems, such as diesel engines with electric motors, were evaluated. Then, between 2020 and 2022, ALFA advanced its work by partnering with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and Sandia National Laboratories in its Energy Initiative Project. This partnership sought to discover whether powering vessels with batteries, biofuels, hydrogen, ammonia, or hybrid systems could lead to zero carbon emissions.

Several valuable takeaways stemmed from this partnership. It confirmed that the most mature technology ALFA could implement to reduce carbon emissions in Alaska’s longline fishing fleets would be hybrid systems. ALFA also learned that many marine groups and some fishing groups outside Alaska were interested in these opportunities. Then, when the DOE announced twelve competitive funding opportunities, one of which was this vehicle technology grant, ALFA felt empowered to apply and incorporated its realizations into its proposal.

“None of these announcements were specific to fisheries or even marine industries, but we noticed the Vehicle Technology Office included one ‘open topic’ in their funding opportunity announcement,” says Chandler Kemp, founder and president of Kempy Energetics. He serves as a consultant for ALFA and worked with the association to write the VTO proposal. “It focused on deployment—rather than research—projects for new power system technologies, which seemed like a good fit for ALFA.”

The chosen organization would need to be able to test technologies that had not yet been proven in industries. Kemp believed that ALFA met this requirement. “Plus, they were accepting marine applications, which wasn’t true for the other announcements,” he adds.

Data for Deployment
Kemp, who works at the UAF Bristol Bay campus in Dillingham as an assistant professor of sustainable energy, strives to provide his consulting clients with cost-saving, environmentally responsible options. This approach—along with Kemp’s knowledge stemming from partnerships with cross-continent organizations that advance fishing vessel efficiencies—helped guide ALFA on its deployment possibilities for the VTO grant and informed how it pitched pilot projects in its proposal. Together, ALFA and Kemp made the case that US fishing fleets should influence the DOE’s fuel-efficiency goals. For instance, he referenced the first hybrid-system fishing vessel, which came out in Norway in 2016. Now, many of Norway’s fishing fleets have the propulsion systems ALFA is deploying—and, most importantly, they’ve been successful. In fact, these marine technologies are being used in other international waters, like Nova Scotia.

“There are companies that are manufacturing hybrid drive options, but none of them are currently deployed in the US,” Kemp says, noting that whether American fisheries will—or can—embrace them is the looming question. “They’re pretty expensive. Right now, it’s hard for fishermen to cover the costs themselves—but financial support would help.” ALFA’s proposal convinced the DOE.

ALFA BETA is using the grant funds to create three pilot projects, allowing selected participants, like Turner, to upgrade their fishing vessels. “My role is helping with measurements, data collection, and documentation,” Kemp says. “Basically, keeping track of how many kilowatts it takes to push a boat.” Once they see how these retrofits work and how they could be further expanded, then they can seek more investments.

“We want to give fishing fleets the information they need so they feel confident making changes,” Behnken says. “Taking financial risks without clear benefits isn’t good for anyone, and fishermen are especially wary when it comes to their operations.” One goal for the ALFA BETA’s pilot projects is to demonstrate how hybrid systems could be adjusted for specific needs.

“I’m honored to be out here pioneering the technology for fishing and helping to collect the data,” Turner says. “Not only does it help me, it helps others and the future.”

Coming Through in a Clutch
ALFA BETA is a three-year grant with opportunities for cost extensions. ALFA anticipates that research from these pilot projects will inform other zero-carbon advancements for Alaska fishing vessels. Its approved expenses include purchasing and installing equipment and coordinating outreach and communications.

Turner’s pilot project is already underway, and ALFA is currently evaluating applications to determine who should be involved in the two other retrofits, which will also be funded by its grant. Descriptions of the fishing vessels, explanations about harvesting practices, and information about business operations are helping ALFA decide whom to select.

“There are a few types of hybrid systems that fit with our pilot projects,” says Kemp, “so what works best for any particular fleet really depends on their needs.” Options include things like installing electric motors and diesel generators, adding clutches, and using electric grids to charge batteries.

The first conversion is happening on Turner’s fishing vessel, which sometimes goes out to harvest seafood for weeks at a time. ALFA is altering how his diesel engine connects to his propeller. Usually a shaft runs from the reduction gear to the propeller, which keeps energy losses at a minimum when significant power is required. However, for trolling or longlining, standard diesel engines are inefficient.

“We’re keeping Jeff’s regular engine and adding an extra clutch between it and the reduction gear,” Kemp says. “He’ll be able to use the clutch to disengage it and turn on an electric motor instead.” In this case, Turner could shut down his diesel engine for six to eight hours while fishing, depending on the size of the electric motor’s battery.

Turner also has a diesel generator that keeps his freezer cold, which could supplement his main engine and electric motor. “If Jeff can shut down the main and just run the generator while fishing,” says Kemp, “he could save over a thousand gallons of fuel even without a battery.” Then, during Turner’s shorter trips, he can save a significant amount of fuel by charging the batteries at shore.

Charging Ahead
Another hybrid system possibility that Kemp mentions is a series hybrid option, which means installing an electric motor powered with a battery or a diesel generator. Fisheries that stay close to shore are showing interest in this retrofit.

“For vessels that travel very short distances, they can run off battery power for their typical operations and only use the generator for challenging conditions or if they go on longer trips,” says Kemp. After a day trip, when the fishing vessel is back at the harbor, the fishermen can recharge their batteries. “These conversions will make a huge difference for fuel reduction when utilized on short outings.”

Most fishing vessels that add an electric motor should be able to charge their batteries while docked. “That’s going to be fishermen’s cheapest and cleanest source of energy,” Kemp says. “Depending on which harbor they’re at, they’ll likely have access to 120-volt or 240-volt power supplies.”

Fishing vessels with access to 50-amp, 240-volt power will benefit from the high charge rate without requiring changes to the communities’ electric grids. “Even so,” Kemp adds, “the more power that is available at a harbor, the faster the batteries can charge.”

When Turner’s fuel savings combine with other fishing vessels that begin to utilize these hybrid systems, the benefits will become exponential, making the Alaska marine ecosystem cleaner. Plus, fishermen will likely experience other cost benefits, such as reducing engine maintenance costs.

“A lot of fishermen are interested in this work,” Behnken says. ALFA has gotten meaningful engagement from vessel owners and fishermen. The association is working with them to identify preferred technologies and ensure that installations are safe. As the pilot projects continue to evolve, ALFA and Kemp will note possible improvements, establish a list of necessary resources, and suggest deployment considerations.

“Once we prove these hybrid systems are helping our fleets by pointing to verifiable data,” says Behnken, “then we’ll celebrate ALFA BETA’s success.”

“To put it in layman’s terms—for myself really,” Turner says with a laugh, “I’ll be thrilled when, instead of running my engine at a low speed while I idle, I can use a battery.” He estimates that, for every six hours of battery-supplied power, he will save $50. “Even better, though, is we’ll have helped make things a little greener and much quieter too.”