Electrifying US ports could drive sharp cuts in air pollution

A new analysis finds that cities near some of the busiest U.S. ports could see major health benefits if the facilities powered ships and trucks with electricity.
By Maria Gallucci

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a large red and blue plug is getting connected to a cruise ship in port
A cruiseliner hooks up to the shore-side electricity supply facility at the passenger quay in Warnemünd, Germany. (ROSTOCK PORT/nordlicht)

America’s waterfront communities could see a dramatic reduction in toxic air pollution if ports powered ships and trucks using only electricity instead of exhaust-spewing diesel engines, a new analysis found.

Researchers at the International Council on Clean Transportation recently quantified the potential reductions near two hubs in particular: the Port of New York and New Jersey and the Port of Seattle, the nation’s third- and fourth-busiest gateways, respectively.

They considered what would happen if every cruise or cargo ship visiting the ports plugged into the electric grid while docked, rather than idling its engines. They also imagined that every ferry, tugboat and supply vessel in the harbor was electrified, along with every drayage truck. Although these technologies exist in some form today, the majority of ports in the United States and globally still primarily burn fossil fuels for operations on land and on water.

We found that [electrification] will lead to significant health benefits for people living near the ports,” Zhihang Meng, a Beijing-based associate researcher on the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) marine team, told Canary Media.

Based on the team’s computer models, full electrification at Seattle’s port would drive a 75 percent reduction in emissions of fine particulate matter (PM2.5), which can enter people’s lungs and bloodstream and elevate their risk for asthma, heart disease and cancer. With cleaner air, the city of roughly 734,000 people would avoid about three premature deaths per year. In dollar terms, that translates to over $27 million in annual public health benefits for Seattle, according to the paper co-authored by Meng and Bryan Comer.

A left-hand map shows air pollution plumes in Seattle in 2019; a right-hand map shows a smaller plume due to electrification
Annual average PM2.5 concentration attributable to Seattle port emissions under the 2019 baseline (left) and full electrification (right) scenarios (ICCT)
A left-hand map shows the benefit of air pollution reduction in Seattle; a right-hand map shows benefits in terms of money
Benefit of reduced annual average PM2.5 concentration and monetized public health benefits in Seattle in the full electrification scenario (ICCT)

In New York and New Jersey’s shared port district, electric vessels and trucks would spur a 69 percent reduction in PM2.5 emissions. The improved air quality would avoid 16 premature deaths per year, or the equivalent of $150 million in public health benefits, the researchers found. While the port’s pollution affects multiple cities and neighborhoods, Brooklyn’s 2.5 million residents would see the most significant share of benefits.

Neither location saw a 100 percent drop in pollution — the analysis assumes the cargo ships cruising in and out of harbors are still burning dirty bunker fuel.

A left-hand map shows air pollution plumes in NY-NJ in 2019; a right-hand map shows a smaller plume due to electrification
Annual average PM2.5 concentration attributable to New York–New Jersey port emissions under the 2019 baseline (left) and full electrification (right) scenarios (ICCT)
A left-hand map shows the benefit of air pollution reduction in NY-NJ; a right-hand map shows benefits in terms of money
Benefit of reduced annual average PM2.5 concentration and monetized public health benefits in New York–New Jersey in the full electrification scenario. (ICCT)

The ICCT researchers said they used relatively simple methods to model the emissions reductions. The idea, Meng added, was to use Seattle and New York–New Jersey as case studies to demonstrate how community leaders, port managers and policymakers could use the same data tools to see the potential health benefits of electrifying ports in their own backyards.

New federal funding could accelerate investments in shore power and electric vessels

The report arrives as an unprecedented amount of federal climate and energy funding is flowing to U.S. ports. Regulatory agencies, port authorities and environmental groups are increasingly pushing to improve air quality and boost the adoption of emerging zero-emission technologies for land equipment and marine vessels.

International shipping accounts for roughly 3 percent of greenhouse gas emissions every year, along with a toxic soup of pollutants — the latter of which are most heavily concentrated in waterfront communities. In the United States, more than 39 million people live within three miles of a port, the majority of whom are lower-income residents and people of color.

The Inflation Reduction Act includes $3 billion to help ports adopt zero-emissions technologies and create plans for addressing climate change. Another $1 billion could help electrify drayage trucks that carry cargo containers. Separately, 2021’s infrastructure law includes $17 billion for upgrading ports and crucial waterways. Some of those funds are being used to help ports in California, Florida, Ohio and Oregon to electrify cargo-handling equipment, build up charging infrastructure and allow more arriving ships to connect to the grid while at berth.

Two large blue electrical plugs and big black cables rest on a pier at the Port of Seattle
Giant electrical plugs at the Port of Seattle allow marine vessels to use electricity at the dock instead of running diesel engines. (Port of Seattle)

The money could help accelerate what has so far been a slow and piecemeal shift toward port electrification, said Teresa Bui, the state climate policy director for Pacific Environment, which advocates for shipping decarbonization.

For shore-power systems in particular, much of the holdup is financial. Building infrastructure and supplying electricity for massive oceangoing vessels drawing megawatts of power can cost ports tens of millions of dollars. In Seattle, for instance, a plan to bring shore power to a downtown waterfront cruise terminal in 2024 is expected to cost some $32 million.

It does take a lot of money to make sure there’s adequate power,” Bui said. Ports really have to revamp the [electrical] installation for the terminal itself.”

Most state and regional authorities also haven’t adopted policies that require or incentivize ports to invest in zero-emissions solutions at a broad scale. One key exception is California, said Bui, who is based in Sacramento.

Container, cruise and other ships docking along California’s coastline are required to use shoreside electricity supplies or other emissions-control technologies. The state’s at-berth” rules, which regulators expanded in 2020 to include more types of vessels, could drive a 55 percent reduction in potential cancer risk for communities near the ports of Los Angeles, Long Beach and Richmond, according to the California Air Resources Board (CARB).

California’s Commercial Harbor Craft Regulation also requires commercial fishing vessels, workboats, pilot and research vessels to meet strict emissions standards. Short-run ferries, which travel less than 3 nautical miles over a single trip, will be required to be fully zero-emissions by the end of 2025. The rules are expected to reduce the cancer risk for over 22 million residents who live near the state’s coast, CARB stated.

A white, diesel-powered tugboat plies the harbor near the Port of Oakland in California
A diesel-powered tugboat plies the harbor near the Port of Oakland, California. (CARB)

We need other states to adopt California’s shipping policies to minimize harm to the port communities and their workers,” Bui said. She noted that coalitions of states have already mirrored California’s other regulations for curbing tailpipe emissions from cars and trucks and requiring sales of zero-emissions vehicles.

Public health benefits could help make the case for a costly, challenging transition

Still, California’s port-electrification push hasn’t always gone smoothly.

Some oceangoing vessels still don’t plug into the grid when they arrive because the ships themselves don’t have the right equipment. At the Port of Oakland, about 62 percent of visiting vessels successfully drew shore power in 2022, but another 33 percent weren’t equipped to connect, according to the port’s data. Two years ago, in the midst of serious port congestion, Southern California saw record numbers of ships idling in the harbor, far away from charging infrastructure. That drove a spike in carcinogenic particulate matter and smog-forming nitrogen oxides.

New York City, which has the East Coast’s only shore-power system, has also encountered problems since installing plugs at the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal six years ago.

In 2022, only about one-third of ships visiting the terminal actually connected to the grid; the rest continued to spew diesel exhaust into surrounding communities. The system’s current design makes it difficult for many ships to access the equipment, and no rules compel ships to actually plug in. When MSC Meraviglia, one of the world’s largest cruise ships, calls on the terminal in April, it likewise won’t be able to plug in due to the connector’s location, Samantha Maldonado recently reported for the news website The City.

Another challenge for port electrification is that many zero-emissions trucks and ships are still in the early stages of development and aren’t widely available, though that’s slowly starting to change.

An artist's rendering shows red-and-white battery-powered harbor tugboat anchored in a calm sea
Crowley Maritime's "eWolf" vessel will be the first all-electric, battery-powered harbor tug ever built and operated in the United States. (Crowley Engineering Services)

The Port of San Diego is slated to receive the nation’s first all-electric tugboat later this year. The 82-foot eWolf” vessel will have a 6.2-megawatt-hour battery for its main propulsion and be able to complete a job without expending a drop of fuel,” according to the boat’s builder, Crowley Maritime Corp. Last year, the first U.S. ferry powered by hydrogen fuel cells began operational trials at a shipyard in Bellingham, Washington. The 70-foot Sea Change, which is set to depart for San Francisco later this month, can travel up to 300 nautical miles at speeds similar to diesel-powered vessels.

Once you have mandates [and funding] in place, then you’re going to see a proliferation of these technologies,” Bui said.

Meng, of ICCT, said that quantifying the potential health benefits of all-electric hubs can help ports apply for federal and state funding — while also building support within portside communities for investments that could drastically improve the air they breathe.

Along with PM2.5, the researchers also looked at other types of pollution in the new case studies. In Seattle, they found that emissions of particulate matter (PM10) and nitrogen oxides (NOx) fell by 75 percent and 85 percent, respectively. Planet-warming carbon dioxide emissions, meanwhile, dropped by 68 percent.

In New York–New Jersey, emissions of PM10 fell by 70 percent, NOx emissions dropped by 66 percent, and carbon dioxide emissions declined by 64 percent.

With pollution-reduction data in hand, the researchers plan to expand the focus of their case studies, including by doing a cost-benefit analysis of, say, upgrading shoreside charging infrastructure or flipping entire fleets of diesel-burning harbor craft to battery-powered versions.

We are all expecting [emissions from] maritime transportation to increase in the future,” Meng said. With this initial paper, We wanted to provide some easy-to-use tools for the policymakers and show communities around the ports how [electrification] could bring benefits to them.”

Maria Gallucci is a senior reporter at Canary Media. She covers emerging clean energy technologies and efforts to electrify transportation and decarbonize heavy industry.