Good Works

Stubbornly Optimistic

By Sonner Kehrt

Tom Escher didn’t take no for an answer. Now, he’s set to launch a hydrogen-powered ferry in San Francisco Bay.

Tom Escher by Tri Nguyen.

For many people in business, a big part of success is getting to yes. For Tom Escher, it’s about getting to zero. Escher, who owns San Francisco’s Red and White tourist boats, has a goal for his fleet: zero emissions by 2025. It’s an ambitious target in the marine industry, where the standard for power has long been fuel-guzzling diesel engines. But next fall, Escher will help christen the Water-Go-Round, the nation’s first hydrogen-fueled passenger ferry. It will be the culmination of a longtime dream for Escher, but only a first step toward what he believes can be a much greener future.

The Red and White Fleet is a family business for Escher, whose grandfather founded it as a launch boat company in 1892. In the ensuing decades, it’s become a premier cruise tour company in the San Francisco Bay. However, Escher isn’t thinking about the past. He’s thinking about the future. Concerns about the world he’s leaving to his grandkids, a long-time interest in green energy, and an entrenched optimism have led him to believe it’s time for a revolution in the marine industry — and that the Bay Area, with its environmental savvy and its innovative spirit, is the place to do it.

“We’re from California and we think differently and we think goofy,” Escher says. “Unless you think differently and unless you’re a little goofy, you’re never going to do breakthroughs.”

About four years ago, Escher was thinking about how to move his fleet toward clean energy. He came across work being done by the Department of Energy and others to develop a hydrogen fuel cell that could serve as an alternative for shipboard diesel generators. He wondered, could hydrogen be the answer? After a few back-of-the-envelope calculations, Escher reached out to the Department of Energy, which connected him with researchers at Sandia National Laboratories.

“Initially, I was skeptical,” recalls Joseph Pratt, a former Sandia engineer who has been working with Escher. Pratt wasn’t sure that hydrogen could power a ship as large as what Escher was proposing. Instead, he recommended liquefied natural gas, a cleaner fuel popular among maritime companies looking to go green. But Escher wouldn’t budge.

“As far as I’m concerned, cleaner means nothing,” Escher says. “You’ve got to go to zero pollution.”

Pratt and other Sandia researchers were intrigued by the problem. After studying the issue a bit, they applied for grant money to investigate the possibility of powering a long-range, high-speed passenger ferry with hydrogen fuel cells. Several studies — and years — later, the answer was clear. The idea was both technically viable and commercially feasible.

It’s one thing to know your idea is possible. It’s another thing to bring that idea to life — and it’s a whole other thing to persuade the rest of the world to adopt it. Escher’s never had doubts.

“Tom is the most optimistic person I know,” says Joe Burgard, the executive vice president at Red and White Fleet. “[He] knows how to bring others along with his big ideas and enthusiasm.”

In 2017, the California Air Resources Board was scouting proposals for zero emissions maritime transit projects. Escher and Pratt saw an opportunity and were awarded a $3 million grant to build a ferry. Pratt left his position at Sandia labs, and along with Escher and Burgard, founded Golden Gate Zero Emission Marine. In addition to developing the ferry, the company produces fuel cell technology for broader maritime use, which it believes can change the industry. “We are a small company. We are a local company. And we think that we’re going to make a big difference here,” Escher says.

The evolution of ships isn’t easy, he explains. New technology — whether coal or diesel or hydrogen — inevitably encounters obstacles and can be met with skepticism. But Escher believes that somebody just has to be the first to make the shift.

“It’s a pretty traditional industry,” Pratt adds. “People don’t like thinking about change. He’s extremely rare in his thinking.”

That outside-the-box thinking is paying off. In September, the company will launch the Water-Go-Round, a 70-foot passenger ferry powered by hydrogen fuel cells and capable of reaching speeds up to 22 knots. The ship will be owned by Golden Gate Zero Emission Marine and operated by Red and White Fleet in the San Francisco Bay.

On the Water-Go-Round’s maiden voyage, Escher says, he plans to demonstrate just how clean hydrogen power is — by drinking the ship’s exhaust. Other than heat, the only byproduct of a hydrogen cell is water, and for Escher, it tastes like the future.

“We have the capability to go to zero,” says Escher. “Why don’t we do it?”

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