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Sooty vessels try to turn green

With pollution in ports a key contributor to US emissions, ferries and other harbor vessels look for new ways to operate.

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On its way to the Statue of Liberty, the Miss Freedom backs away from the pier with white smoke spewing from its twin smokestacks. Then, as the captain turns out to the harbor, yet more soot streams out of the stacks.

But by the end of next year, the 3.5 million people who board the ferries annually to visit Lady Liberty may have another sight: a trimaran that can use the wind, turning on solar-charged electric motors when it's at the dock. "What someone will see when the boat is at the pier is nothing – no soot, no white smoke, nothing," says Robert Dane, CEO of Solar Sailor, the designer in Sydney, Australia.

Cutting pollution on the waterfront is an important part of the effort to cut smog and greenhouse-gas emissions. According to New York City's estimate, waterborne transportation represents 8 percent of its overall emissions. It's far higher in California, where commercial oceangoing vessels are responsible for about 80 percent of emissions of sulfur oxides and almost 13 percent of the nitrogen oxides emitted by mobile sources in the state, according to estimates by the Air Resources Board.

That's one reason that ferry services around the nation are looking for new ways to operate. The changes are important because ferries are a high-profile form of transportation, carting both tourists and commuters. In essence, they can become "floating billboards" for what can be done.

"What better way to reduce emission than using cleaner, renewable energy out on the water?" says Teri Shore of Friends of the Earth in San Francisco. "Clearly, diesel ferries need to be cleaned up."

In fact, starting last Friday, the US Environmental Protection Agency is requiring refiners to provide ultralow sulfur diesel for harbor vessels, such as tugs and ferries. This is expected to cut emissions from about 3,000 parts per million to a maximum of 500 parts per million. By 2012, the EPA will require that marine engines be designed so that total emissions are 15 parts per million or less.

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