Vancouver: City of a thousand causes

The vibrant Canadian city is a versatile mixture of the dynamic, the pioneering, the progressive, the sustainable and the environmental. Its movie set style scenery has earned it the nickname ‘Hollywood North’

If the Hollywood director Steven Spielberg was asked to make a movie about Vancouver he would set it among the city’s sumptuous mountain scenery, feature shots of its striking Aboriginal carvings and totem parks, add the gritty realism and ingenuity of its maritime sector and write a plot to rival Tom Hanks’s Captain Phillips. Its title might be Viva Vancouver!

Or, more aptly perhaps, The City Of A Thousand Causes. When you go to meetings with members of Vancouver’s many shipping companies and associations you are immediately struck by their collective resolve to protect the west Canadian city’s sensitive coastline and its multiple species of mammals and birdlife. An aim that is reflected in the ambition of Port Metro Vancouver  –  the city’s main port and Canada’s largest – to become the world’s most sustainable hub.

The port’s pivotal position on the Pacific Ocean Rim has made it a key access point for most of the products and raw materials Canada exports to the Asia-Pacific market. And the port uses 27 terminals and three major rail links and handles C$184 billion of cargo a year – or C$500 million a day – which is 20% of Canada’s goods traded by value. The port handles goods imported and exported from more than 170 countries and its daily activities and support services are responsible for 100,000 Canadian jobs – figures that speak for themselves.

As one of the three largest hubs of a resource-rich nation, it is not surprising perhaps that most of Port Metro’s terminals – 19 in fact – handle British Columbia’s four main bulk commodities – coal, grain, sulphur and potash – making up 68% of the port’s annual tonnage. The port’s four container terminals specialise in household goods, local produce, machinery, speciality grains and forest products and handled 3.1 million teu of cargo in 2015. It also has two breakbulk terminals handling lumber, wood pulp, logs and steel, and two vehicle transhipment terminals which in 2015 loaded and offloaded 384,500 cars, vans and lorries, almost 100% of which were imported from Asia.

As part of its sustainability drive, the port and three partner companies – GCT (Global Container Terminals), DP World and Transport Canada – recently installed shorepower at two container terminals so visiting ships could switch from diesel to emission-free electricity. It was also fitted to the main cruise ship terminal in the city centre’s Canada Place to protect city dwellers and tourists from any unwanted fumes. Vancouver’s cruise terminal has become a focal point for tourists wishing to visit the majestic scenery of Alaska and, in 2015, 800,000 cruise lovers made 228 trips between Vancouver and Alaska – which is 22% more than in 2012.

But both residents and tourists don’t have to travel further than Vancouver city and the twin islands of Vancouver and Victoria to find breathtaking beauty and a landscape of rugged, snow-capped mountain ranges, rainforests, spectacular parks, lakes, rivers, waterfalls and sublime ocean views. Though the city itself has a population of only 600,000, Greater Vancouver – or Metro Vancouver as it is known – has 2.6 million residents, 43% of whom are of Asian heritage, making it the most ‘Asian’ city outside the continent itself.  It is regularly referred to as one of the world’s top five cities for quality of life and is the fastest growing metropolitan community in Canada with its GDP (gross domestic product) expected to peak at 3.3% in 2016-2017. With its high standard of living and acclaimed academies and universities, it is not altogether surprising perhaps that the city has a fast-growing IT and new technology sector and has become Canada’s go-to city for software development, biotechnology and film production.

Mr Spielberg would certainly approve. He may even have had a say in the city’s nickname ‘Hollywood North’.  Because of its eye-catching location, 10% of Hollywood’s movies are shot in Vancouver and most of Steven Spielberg’s movie The BFG was made in the city, Roald Dahl fans will be pleased to know. Among other  favourites either shot or part produced in the city have been Mission Impossible, Star Trek Beyond, Fifty Shades of Grey and Deadpool, which stars the Vancouver-born actor Ryan Reynolds, as well as such TV series as The Twilight Saga, X-Files and X-Men.

In fact the city itself resembles a giant film-set. Mere mention of the name Vancouver and you think of the Great Outdoors. There are three major ski slopes less than a 30-minute drive from the city and, two hours away, is Whistler Blackcomb mountain, scene of the main skiing events in the 2010 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games. With its many natural water features and the seemingly boundless Pacific Ocean, Vancouver is a favourite summer  retreat for water sports enthusiasts – from water-skiing to kayaking, yachting and, of course, whale-watching.

The almost spiritual awe that whales seem to attract in Canada is reflected in a project called ECHO (Enhancing Cetacean Habitat and Observation, no less!) to reduce the effects of marine sounds and vibrations on the world’s largest mammals as well as dolphins, porpoises and seals. The project has the wholehearted backing of ship owners, operators, managers and port authorities and is a joint partnership between Port Metro Vancouver, local operator BC Ferries and several local conservation and environment groups and scientists. The port is using underwater listening stations to measure vessel noise source levels and ambient noise and to detect marine mammals.

“Whales come here to feed and if they can’t hear their echo-location come back due to vessel noise they may miss that opportunity to feed,” said Orla Robinson, ECHO’s Programme Manager.

“Underwater noise from vessels has the potential to disturb marine mammals, fish and other marine fauna and the port …. wishes to help the shipping industry to reduce its noise footprint in the marine environment. With this goal in mind we have developed a vessel noise measurement system and a comparative noise ranking method that allows vessel noise emissions to be characterised relative to those of other vessels.

“Vessel underwater noise emissions vary with vessel class, size, speed, tonnage and loading. The listening system implemented by Port Metro Vancouver applies a scaling system to account for these variables. The rating also considers that different marine species have different hearing acuities. For example, humpback whales are believed to be more sensitive to low-frequency sounds than killer whales,” said Ms Robinson.

Another research project called Whaleshark, which is coordinated by the Vancouver supplier All-Sea Underwater Solutions, is currently assessing the effect of underwater hull-cleaning on vessels’ noise levels and emissions as well as their fuel consumption before and after cleaning.

The good news for owners, operators and managers is that ships that join the ECHO project and meet its lowest noise emissions levels will be awarded gold, silver or bronze medals according to their degree of compliance. Gold will give them a substantial 47% cut in their harbour due rates, while silver will give them 35% and bronze 23% off the standard cost. A book to guide masters, officers and crews on noise reduction called the ‘Mariner’s Guide to Whales, Dolphins and Porpoises of Western Canada’ was published in December 2016.

Among the port’s other sustainability initiatives are: The Northwest Ports Clean Air Strategy which was set up to reduce emissions effecting air quality and climate change in the Pacific Northwest; the use of alternative fuels and the electrification of cargo-handling equipment to improve terminals’ footprint; a mandatory truck reservation system and extended gate hours to reduce emissions and to balance traffic flows in ports and terminals; and habitat creation and several marine mammal monitoring projects and environmental mitigation programmes to soften the effects that port construction and daily ship operations have on marine life.

But no review of Vancouver would be complete without referring to two noteworthy historical events. The German scientist Helmut Lanzinger, owner of the company Offshore Systems International in North Vancouver, is reliably recognised as the inventor of ECDIS (the Electronic Chart Display and Information System) navigation on ships in the late 1970s while, in 1971, during protests about nuclear weapons testing, a group of activists set sail from Vancouver in a fishing boat called Greenpeace – and were thus the forerunners of the famous peace movement.

In today’s Vancouver, however, the sector with the X factor is containers. A survey by the independent economic consultancy, Ocean Shipping Consultants, shows that the city’s teu total of just over three million is expected to double to more than six million teus in the next 10 to 15 years as the sizes of ships and the volumes of global trade continue to burgeon. So investment in further expanding the port’s terminals will soon start in earnest.  Perhaps the most futuristic project is a plan to build what promises to be Canada’s largest container terminal.

Called PATH (Port Alberini Transshipment Hub) the terminal would be fully digitised, with its automated stacking and gate cranes serviced by battery-operated automatic guided vehicles (AGVs). The terminal’s proposed 1,800m berth length could accommodate giant boxships of up to 22,000teu with expected productivity of 6,000 containers per 24 hours and an annual capacity of up to five million teu. The 250-acre terminal would lie approximately 20 kilometres from the Pacific Ocean with a catchment area of nearby ports and terminals served by feeder barges – known as spokes.

The great merit of the C$1.78 billion PATH scheme is that it is a one-stop service, consolidating multiple calls in the Pacific North West region into one single call and significantly reducing vessel transit and port times – all the advantages of short-sea shipping in fact.

The scheme has been championed by its founder Zoran Knezevic, President and CEO of Port Alberni Port Authority. After several years of rigorous research and planning the new terminal is at the feasibility stage and, despite the zeal of its founder, has met a muted response from local port authorities and potential investors.

Another example of Vancouver enterprise is the C$3.5 bn Asia-Pacific Gateway and Corridor Initiative (APGCI) which is being funded by the Canadian Government, four Canadian provinces including the local British Columbia and a number of private and public sector companies. This ambitious project includes a network of new roads and rail links which, when built, will improve the connections between North America and the booming economies of Asia.

A favourite slogan of this city of causes, campaigns and constant change is “Doing business the Canadian way”. During a press tour of the Seaspan subsidiary, Seaspan ULC’s Vancouver shipyard, I saw why. A group of 10 Seaspan directors and managers palpably enthused over the stage-by-stage progress of its latest shipbuilding project –the 150m-long  John G. Diefenbaker, one of the world’s largest and most powerful icebreakers, as they showed us the newbuild’s many layers of construction from steel-cutting and block-building through to painting, finishing and final assembly.

The John G. Diefenbaker is one of the first vessels to be awarded class society  Lloyd’s Register’s Icebreaker (+) class notation and is the result of a collaboration between the Canadian Coast Guard, electrical engineers Imtech, Vancouver naval architects VARD Marine and Aker Arctic Technology. The vessel has an eight-foot icebreaking capacity and an open water speed of 20 knots, a cruising speed of 12 knots and logistical endurance of 270 days.

The project is part of a 17-vessel newbuilding scheme worth C$8 billion that was awarded to Seaspan ULC as part of the Canadian Government’s 2011 National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy (NSPS).

The contract includes another Canadian first – a pioneering triple-fuelled hybrid Ro-Ro powered by liquefied natural gas (LNG), diesel-fuel and lithium-ion batteries. It follows a two-year transformation of the shipyard between 2012 and 2014 from a “Jurassic park into one of the most modern shipyards in the world”, said Seaspan ULC President Brian Carter. To mark the achievement, Seaspan ULC’s CEO Jonathan Whitworth won the Enterprise Category in British Columbia’s Business CEO of 2016 Awards in November (see SMI’s interview with Mr Whitworth in the ‘How I Work’ section on page 20).

Vancouver’s commitment to alternative power sources and fuel efficiency was the theme of several more press seminars in the city. Nick Roper, Vice President for North American Business Development at classification society DNV GL, said that while interest in LNG-fuelled vessels has fluctuated ever since the concept was introduced and the first rules produced in 1990, business has picked up again. Mr Roper predicted a market surge of up to 700 LNG-fuelled vessels by 2020.

Equally compelling is the rising Canadian demand for hybrid and battery-driven vessels as nil-emissions alternatives to HFO and diesel fuel. Corvus Energy, which is based in Richmond, near Vancouver, and makes lithium-ion battery systems, has just won funding from the Canadian Government for a project called ORCA ESS a series of next-generation energy (battery) storage systems (ESS).  Corvus’s ESS systems were recently fitted to five vessels in the world’s largest hybrid ferries fleet owned by Scandlines.

Meanwhile, the Finland-based engine-maker Wärtsilä, which made Vancouver its Canadian HQ in 1991, supplied the engines and gas handling capabilities for Canada’s first LNG and diesel-electric powered vessel, the STQ-owned ferry F.A. Gauthier, in 2015. Wärtsilä will supply the engines for nine more dual-fuelled ferries in Canada in the next 12 months – two for Quebec’s STQ (Société des traversiers du Quebec), two for Seaspan and five for BC Ferries.

Many of these vessels will travel in the North American ECAs (emission control areas) that were recently introduced off the coasts of Canada and North America as well as the environmentally sensitive local waters of Vancouver’s Fraser River and the St Lawrence Seaway.

But, apart from its many LNG, battery and hybrid power projects, Vancouver is the home of what might soon be one of the shipping industry’s most sustainable marine fuels – methanol.

This biodegradable, clean-burning fuel can be sourced from more than 100 products ranging from paints to feedstocks.  Waterfront Shipping, a subsidiary of Methanex – both companies are based in Vancouver – has just built the world’s first methanol-fuelled tankers – seven vessels fitted with MAN B&W ME-LGI 2-stroke engines that can switch between methanol, diesel and HFO.

The odourless, colourless fuel reduces a vessel’s SOx emissions by 99%, NOx by 60% and particulates by 95% and so meets the shipping industry’s increasingly rigorous emissions regulations. A low flashpoint fuel, it is readily available worldwide and more than 70 million tons are currently produced annually. Interestingly, the main feedstock in methanol production is natural gas and although it is a liquid, the cost of bunkering the fuel is very low compared to LNG. Ship owners will also find the costs of converting vessels to methanol markedly lower than those that are re-fitted for LNG fuel.