How Austal is staying sustainable in a crisis

Austal Australia’s Sander van Essen tells Elly Yates-Roberts how the organisation has developed a new range of electric ferries during the pandemic

How Austal is staying sustainable in a crisis
Austal’s Volta series has been launched with the Passenger Express 46V

In January 2021, shipbuilding company Austal Australia launched its Volta series of electric-powered, high-speed ferries. The first of these vessels is the Passenger Express 46V, a fully electric 46-metre catamaran ferry.  

Austal was able to launch the series of environmentally conscious vessels during one of the most turbulent times for business, and naval architect Sander van Essen credits its in-house processes and flexibility.   

“While the Covid-19 pandemic has undoubtedly had an impact on the global shipbuilding industry, we have been fortunate that the impact on Austal and our Volta series development has been quite minimal, with all design work completed in-house, in Henderson, Australia,” he says. “Our preference has always been to meet with key stakeholders in person, but during the pandemic we had to necessarily conduct many discussions online.  

“The pandemic has certainly shown us what can be achieved remotely and without the environmental impact associated with long-distance travel.” 

Environmental sustainability and the impact of its vessels is becoming an important consideration in how Austal runs its business.  

“It is certainly a focus for our operations around the world and is a key driver of new product development,” explains Van Essen. “With Volta, we have sought to achieve greater environmental sustainability through the development of new, optimised hull designs specifically developed for electric propulsion, that not only move through the water more easily and use less power but also create less wake and potentially zero emissions.”  

In recent years, the waterborne transport industry has been evolving. With sustainability becoming such an important consideration in the development and operation of ferries in particular, the vessels could take root as a more integral part of communities’ public transport systems.   

“There is no doubt that public transport has and will continue to evolve,” says Van Essen. “The good news is that technology is providing an opportunity for disruption across the entire transport industry and as more green technologies become available, alternative forms of transport are likely to emerge. 

“Our focus is to provide operators with a turnkey solution for their zero-emission transport requirements. We believe zero-emission waterborne transport has a bright future, especially in regions of high population density where traffic congestion is becoming an increasingly challenging problem.   

“The Volta series could certainly replace buses in some instances, but we feel it is more likely that they will be integrated into existing and revamped public transport networks.” 

Sustainability and environmentally friendly enhancements had been at the forefront of the shipping industry prior to the outbreak of Covid-19. With many organisations forced to rapidly adjust to the crisis at hand, the focus may have shifted away from their previous priorities. In spite of this, Austal has stayed its course.   

“These are indeed exciting times for not only Austal but the broader shipbuilding industry,” says Van Essen. “With change comes opportunity and being able to contribute positively to what is a huge global issue is especially rewarding.” 

Making sustainability a priority seems to be paying off for the Australian shipbuilder. Operators across the globe are already showing great interest in adding Volta vessels to their fleets, with Van Essen reporting an overwhelmingly positive response.  

“The launch of the Passenger Express 46V was only the first step in our zero-emissions plan for the future,” says Van Essen. “We are currently working on a number of different variants of the Volta – including a faster electric ferry and a smaller, inland waterway variant. We are also closely following the development of alternative fuels and are constantly evaluating the suitability of these fuels for our products.”

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Elly Yates-Roberts
By Elly Yates-Roberts
19 May 2021

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