Transportation funding helps keeps communities moving and connected, and it is abundant and flowing. The U.S. Department of Transportation has set aside more than $700 million for 41 projects in over 20 states that will improve port facilities through Maritime Administration Port Infrastructure Development Program grants. More than $150 million of this will be spent on electrifying port equipment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve air quality.

This drive toward electrification will alter how business is done in the ever-expanding ports and maritime industry. To begin with, electrification involves the shift from diesel-powered cargo handling equipment and vehicles to either grid-connected or battery-electric technologies, requiring significant investments in new equipment and supporting electrical infrastructure and updates to operations and maintenance procedures. From port authorities and terminal operators to logistics providers, shippers and other users, each group has a different way of making decisions that drive electrification and decarbonization efforts. In some instances, decisions are made by operators for entire ports. In other cases, decisions are made tenant by tenant. This difference in approaches can make navigating port electrification tricky.

For port operators, electrification has a lot to do with logistics mechanisms. Cargo handling equipment, drayage trucks and vehicle fleets are being switched from traditional diesel-powered assets that produce local emissions to electric ones. Cruise line operators, cargo ship owners and other vessel operators are turning off diesel auxiliary engines and plugging into shore power to reduce emissions while at berth. And as we get off land and into coastal and inland waterways, there is an increased desire for the electrification of vessels like tugboats and ferries.

Roughly 70% of import/export tonnage moves through seaports. Entities that are part of the port ecosystem need to examine a variety of factors when considering electrification, and now is the time to start planning.

While the capital costs of electric equipment and vehicles can be significantly greater today, there’s a potential long-term economic savings and impact that can be realized because electricity can be cheaper than diesel fuel and electric equipment is expected to have lower maintenance costs. Additionally, decarbonization of port operations can help attract and retain key customers who increasingly make ambitious net-zero goals. Going forward, a port may be more likely to attract new tenants and business if it has a solid master plan in place that includes electrification and resilient infrastructure investments that can help maximize the performance of port assets.

Before deciding on how to move forward with electrification in a way that creates more resilient and sustainable operations, companies and ports need to consider the following:

  • Determine where on the electrification spectrum the operation is and wants to be.
  • Identify long-term goals and forecast future needs including workforce and full supply chain infrastructure.
  • Assess the ability of electric technologies to meet operational needs.
  • Evaluate the operation’s electric resilience.
  • Develop an electrification plan based on type of operations and industry best practices.
  • Connect with power utilities and other infrastructure partners to get a clear picture of their plans.
  • Stay knowledgeable about regulatory issues that could impact decarbonization initiatives.
  • Investigate state and federal funding options that can help support electrification efforts.
  • Evaluate the business case for electrification by understanding full lifecycle costs.

To support widespread port electrification, the power grid must be shored up to meet the increased demand for electricity. Modernizing electrical transmission and distribution systems is critical in getting the required energy to ports.

Another challenge is that ports are in areas often more vulnerable to climate impacts, such as severe hurricanes, flooding and rising sea levels. When examining opportunities for electrification, it’s important to consider how these events would impact port facilities and operations and design the infrastructure accordingly.

Considerations — and conversations — should include: what role can solar, offshore wind and other distributed energy resources play in making ports more energy resilient? Will today’s placement of fleet charging stations, shore power receptacles and other power sources be appropriate in 10 or 20 years? Are feeder and power lines as well as transmission and distribution networks strong enough or too exposed? What about the ability to isolate electricity issues? What types of backup systems can be put in place and can microgrids be used to keep operations running when energy reliability is threatened?

Electrifying ports is a complex task and managing all moving parts will require a considerable amount of strategic planning. What is important to remember is to not look at electrification from an isolated point of view. Port operators, government officials, power suppliers and port tenants should all keep the lines of communication open. Port operators and users can’t just electrify everything without understanding where the increased energy is going to come from and how it will be sustained.

In addition to the physical implications of electrification, there are human impacts. Anytime a port operator or user deploys electrification technologies and changes, it effects the individuals implementing the work. As ports and companies modernize, it’s not just a matter of changing from diesel engines to electric, organizational change management and training are also essential. Automation can play a key role as well.

It is important to help employees and labor understand the operational, environmental and safety benefits of these new technologies. Additionally, increased electrification and automation will require more Internet of Things (IoT) and computer monitoring, which means more cybersecurity measures will be needed to keep operations safe and secure. All of this will require new skill sets and create new workplace demands.

With thoughtful master planning and an integrated team approach that effectively addresses equipment and infrastructure upgrades, it’s possible to build resilient ports that rely heavily on electrification.


Developing an effective ports electrification strategy requires a partner armed with design-build capabilities; maritime experience; and extensive power, transportation, and decarbonization knowledge.
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Alex Piquer is director of technology consulting at 1898 & Co. Working at the intersection of industry, automation and critical infrastructure, he specializes in helping ports and other industries manage assets and plan for a more automated and digital future.