Princess Cruises this week is testing a new dockside electrical hookup that will allow ships to turn off their smoke-producing engines most of the time they are in Juneau.
Princess is bringing four of its five Juneau-bound ships to the South Franklin Street Dock, where the electrical hookup has been installed, for 72 visits this season. Next year all five of its ships in Juneau will use that dock and the electrical system, the company said.
Last year the state found 30 violations of its opacity standards from cruise ships in Juneau in a 60-day period, including six violations by Princess vessels. So far this year there have been 15 potential violations, including three by Princess, but the state hasn't issued notices of violation yet, said Jeanette Brena of the Department of Environmental Conservation.
The opacity standard generally states the plume of smoke, except for water vapor, should not reduce visibility by more than 20 percent.
For some residents the plumes can be unsightly, and for the companies fines can add up to tens of thousands of dollars. But the smoke doesn't come close to violating federal standards for air pollution that are designed to protect people's health, the state found last year.
"I think we're looking at what citizens said about visible emissions in town," said Kirby Day, Princess Tours' director of shore operations in Juneau. "We bring people to some of the most pristine areas in the world, and that's what they're looking for. So I think it's a feather in our cap."
Princess engineers and subcontractors tested the new electrical system with the Dawn Princess on Tuesday afternoon, and it worked well, Day said. If the tests go well with each ship this week, Princess expects to use the system regularly starting next week, he said.
The company spent $4.5 million, including $2 million to retrofit four ships and $2.5 million for the shoreside equipment, which includes a new substation near the dock and a large metal gantry at the dock to bring the electric wires to plugs inside the ships.
"It's not like just plugging in your car in Fairbanks," Day said.
The Juneau Assembly, at Princess' request, allocated $300,000 this year from the passenger head tax to repay some of the shoreside construction costs. The company intends to ask the city to continue to do so, Day said. Its passengers pay about $900,000 a year in the tax, he said.
The Princess ships berth in town for 10 to 12 hours at a time. While they're docked the ships still need to run like a hotel for about 2,100 guests and 800 staff. Normally that means keeping one diesel engine running, plus an oil-fired steam boiler.
And these ships do use electricity - in one day in port about what 3,000 houses would use. On Tuesday, a lounge on the Dawn Princess glittered with lights recessed into the ceiling, under the water in decorative pools and along the steps in curving staircases. Light glowed through painted glass ceilings while guests relaxed to the strumming of an amplified guitar.
Alaska Electric Light and Power, which is selling surplus hydroelectric power to the ships, estimates a ship might use 100,000 kilowatts a day, compared with the usual customer's use of 33 kilowatts.
Day said it might cost the company $4,000 to $5,000 a day for electricity, more than the $3,000 it would burn in diesel fuel if it kept an engine on.
In addition, the company is building an electric-powered steam boiler near the dock that will allow its ships to turn off their oil-fired boilers, which emit a small amount of smoke. The steam is used in its galleys and to heat the ship.
Once a ship arrives, it will take about 40 minutes to switch over to the electric system, said Bob Maddison, a technical superintendent with Princess Cruises. During that time its engines will produce smoke. The ships also will have to start two engines to leave port, and that can take about 30 minutes, Day said.
Robert Reges, a member of the citizen watchdog group Cruise Control, said he anticipates a net reduction in visible emissions, but the ships still might exceed the state opacity standards, especially when they start up cold engines to leave town.
The state allows some leeway in opacity standards when ships are leaving port and for an hour afterward.
Day said the company will learn this week what the emissions are when the ships start their engines. "Once we see that, we're going to go back to the drawing board and try to minimize that, too," he said.
Eric Fry can be reached at email@example.com.