Port of Oakland Shore Power Grid Pays Green Dividends

In positive news for Bay Area air quality, 75 percent of the 1,543 ships that visited the Port of Oakland last year switched off their engines while docked-an increase from 68 percent in 2017.

Photo courtesy of Port of Oakland


Published: February, 2019


In positive news for Bay Area air quality, 75 percent of the 1,543 ships that visited the Port of Oakland last year switched off their engines while docked—an increase from 68 percent in 2017.


Using shore power for lighting, temperature control, refrigeration and other electrical onboard systems eliminates tons of diesel particulate matter and greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change and put at risk the health of dock workers and port neighbors. “Shore power is the most effective way we know to reduce vessel emissions,” said Port of Oakland Environmental Planner Catherine Mukai in a written statement. “We’re pleased because the trends are positive.”


The port’s shore power infrastructure was completed in late 2013 as part of a commitment made five years earlier to reduce seaport-related diesel emissions by 85 percent from 2005 levels by the year 2020. In September of last year, the port reported that diesel emissions had already been reduced by 81 percent of 2005 levels, and expressed confidence that the 2020 goal was in reach.


The California Air Resources Board approved a measure in 2007 requiring that, by the start of 2014, large vessels visiting California’s six major ports more than 25 times a year either turn off their auxiliary engines while at berth and connect to another source of power or employ a control technology that would achieve similar emission reductions.


In 2007, few of the ships passing under the Golden Gate Bridge were grid-ready. But while the demand for more shore power may not yet have reached the port’s doorstep, the port decided to get ready. And those years of effort have paid off. “The port now has enough electrical shore power capacity to plug in all the ships that call,” said Mukai.


But the cost to retrofit an existing vessel for shore power—roughly $1 million—has prevented some ocean carriers from meeting the state’s requirement. The port is working with these carriers to get them on track and hopes to get 90 percent of at-berth vessels plugged into shore power by 2020. “Success requires major planning, collaboration and investments,” Mukai said.


Mukai pointed out that the process of hooking up a vessel to shore power does in itself require collaboration. A single vessel can use more than a megawatt of power; that’s a lot of juice, so each berth has its own dedicated high-voltage substation. Container ships connect to the port’s on-shore grid via large (and very heavy) cables. Harbor pilots have to bring the vessel in and align it with a dockside electrical vault. Then, landside workers have to connect the cables to the vault.


Last month, the port honored two shipping lines that met the state’s challenge head on. Two of the world’s largest container lines, Hyundai Merchant Marine and MSC, have both equipped their entire fleets to be ready for shore power. The International Container Terminal, the port’s busiest terminal, also got a pat on the back for coordinating vessel arrivals to maximize shore power use. More than 750 ships connected to shore power there last year. The International Container Terminal services 22 shipping lines that serve Asia, Europe and Central America.


In January 2019, shore power at the Port of Oakland reached an all-time high, with 82 percent of vessels plugging into the landside grid. Mukai added that more vessels plugged in at the Port of Oakland last year than did at the Port of Los Angeles, despite the fact that L.A. has more terminals than Oakland.


But shore power is just part of a much bigger and greener picture envisioned by Port of Oakland Director of Environmental Programs and Planning Richard Sinkoff. Sinkoff announced last June that the port had embarked on a path to emissions-free cargo operations. That’s “free” as in “zero.”


He described the clean-air plan he helped dream up, the Draft Seaport Air Quality 2020 and Beyond Plan, as “bold and ambitious.” “Achieving a zero-emissions seaport will take years,” he said. “But we are 100 percent committed to eliminating emissions related to the movement of containerized trade, wherever and as soon as we can.”


Sinkoff also warned it wouldn’t be cheap, and would require public sector funding and an investment by businesses that serve the port. Mukai aligns the port’s plans and the work being done by shipping lines to clean up their act with an effort to keep California ahead of the curve when it comes to protecting the environment.


“California is on the forefront of environmental sustainability,” she said. “And shipping lines that do business in California and here in Oakland are aware of our culture to preserve the environment for future generations.”

A single vessel can use more than a megawatt of power, so each berth has its own dedicated high-voltage substation. Photo courtesy of Port of Oakland

Using on-shore power requires connecting very heavy cables to electrical power vaults. Photo courtesy of Port of Oakland