STONINGTON, Maine — New car shoppers visiting any dealer lot today will find plenty of examples of how the automotive industry has responded to increasingly stringent regulations on the unhealthy stuff that spews from vehicle tailpipes.
From low-emission to zero-emission vehicles and hybrids to “clean diesels,” consumers can choose from a variety of technologies that mean today’s new cars belch a fraction of the pollution emitted by cars in the 1960s and 1970s while burning substantially less fuel.
But commercial ships are estimated to emit nearly half as much particle pollution — or soot — as all of the world’s cars combined and therefore represent major contributors to smog and air pollution problems in coastal areas.
Thanks to a unique state-federal program, however, nearly 70 vessels in Maine and New Hampshire have received new, cleaner-burning marine engines during the past three years and in the process helped provide work to Maine boatyards during a tough economic period.
“It has definitely helped,” said Greg Sanborn, service manager at Billings Diesel and Marine, a Stonington boatyard that has received 14 of the contracts. “On the mechanical side, we probably would have held our own. But this has really provided a shot in the arm.”
The engine “repowering” program really began in 2008 as part of the economic stimulus plan passed by Congress. Maine received roughly $1.4 million the next year through a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency program in which boat owners can receive federal grants to cover up to 50 percent of the cost of replacing their old powerhouse with a new “clean diesel” engine.
That initial grant paid for engine replacements — or repowering — on 52 vessels ranging from lobster boats to mail boats and larger ferries. Vessel owners were allowed to choose which Maine boatyard could do the work and often used the savings from the federal grant to pay for additional work.
Maine since has received additional money from the EPA to pay for 17 more repowering projects.
Lynne Cayting, a Maine Department of Environmental Protection staffer who administered the federal grant program in this state, said the majority of the vessels in the first round were lobster boats. That’s because fishermen realized that they could substantially reduce fuel consumption by switching to new diesel engines, she said.
Cayting, who directs the DEP’s mobile air pollution sources program, compared the marine engine repowering program to another clean diesel program in which the department retrofitted more than 500 school buses to illustrate the scope of the reductions.
“The 52 vessels we did under the stimulus program had greater emissions reductions than those 500 school buses because the engines I am replacing are nonregulated engines,” Cayting said. “So they are very dirty engines.”
Although vehicle traffic and industrial sources often get the blame for smog, ships emit a significant portion of the soot and smog-causing pollution around the globe, according to recent research.
A 2009 study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the University of Colorado at Boulder determined that diesel-burning commercial ships emit 2.2 million pounds of particle pollution each year. That figure represents roughly half of the particle pollution produced by all of the cars around the globe.
“Since more than 70 percent of shipping traffic takes place within 250 miles of the coastline, this is a significant health concern for coastal communities,” Daniel Lack, a University of Colorado researcher who was lead author of the study, said at the time.
Roughly half of the pollution from ships are sulfates that are the target of recent low-sulfur fuel requirements for large ships as well as more aggressive rules for cars and trucks. But smaller boats, such as lobster boats, are not subject to the same requirements as large cargo or cruise ships, Cayting said.
Boatyards from southern Maine to Jonesport have received work through the grant program. Last week at Billings Diesel and Marine in Stonington, a crew was busy finishing installation of two new Caterpillar engines on the Pink Lady II, a whale watching boat that operates out of Boothbay Harbor.
The Pink Lady II and the Governor Curtis ferry operated by the Maine State Ferry Service are the two most recent recipients of the federal matching grants. The improvements are expected to reduce nitrogen oxide and particulate matter emissions on the Pink Lady II by 21 percent as well as lower annual fuel consumption by 3,000 gallons. The Governor Curtis, meanwhile, is expected to realize a 44 percent reduction in emissions and save 8,250 gallons of fuel, according to figures supplied by the EPA.
Sanborn at Billings Marine acknowledged that he is not typically a big fan of government grant programs. But Billings Marine has received a substantial chunk of the repowering projects because of the boatyard’s location, ability to handle larger vessels and work with some of the more sought-after engine types.
And like other vessels that have passed through Billings Marine, the Pink Lady II is also getting some cosmetic and other work performed while in dry dock. Sanborn said most projects take two to three weeks to complete and involve anywhere from 120 to 250 man hours.
“This has worked very well,” he said. “I think they have gotten good value for their money.”
Cayting said there were no other models for Maine to work with when designing the program. But she credited boatyards for working with her to recommend ways to implement the program.