Will Scripps Oceanography Leadership Commit to Zero Emissions Research Vessels?


Research vessel Sally Ride offshore of La Jolla, California. Photo by Erik Jepsen, UC San Diego Publications.

All vessels in the Scripps research fleet burn diesel. If it seems ironic to you that one of the world’s foremost organizations for the study of climate change still employs fossil-fuel burning boats, you’re not alone. Graduate students Alex Andriatis and Monica Nelson, who study Physical Oceanography, took action to hold Scripps accountable. This May, they formed the Students for Electrified And Sustainable Ships (SEASS), and circulated a petition asking students, faculty and staff to sign on to a demand that Scripps replace its fleet with zero-emissions vessels.

Two revered Scripps ships, the R/V Melville and R/V New Horizon have recently been retired, and the R/V Gordon Sproul, a trusty coastal ship, is nearing the end of its service life. The petition asks that zero-emission vessels succeed the aging ships when it’s time, and that any ships undergoing refurbishment to propulsion and power systems are fitted with zero-emission technologies wherever feasible.

Bruce Applegate, associate director of fleet operations at Scripps Oceanography, agrees. He responded to the petition within a few days—with a resounding note of support. In his reply, Applegate noted that Scripps has been researching “ways to reduce the prospect of pollution” from its ships since 2012. In 2015, Scripps collaborated with the US Maritime Administration on a pilot program to operate the Sproul on diesel sourced from plants for 15 months. Applegate then worked on another project: studying the feasibility of a zero-emission research vessel powered entirely by hydrogen fuel cells. This feasibility study, performed in conjunction with Sandia National Laboratories, the Department of Transportation and naval architects at Glosten, found that “such a vessel meets all the operational requirements for research activities while reducing particulate emissions by over 99% and greenhouse gas emissions by 91.4% compared to a diesel vessel of similar capability,” Andriatis wrote in the petition. In 2020, a similar study was completed focusing specifically on a replacement for the Sproul. The study found that a Hydrogen Hybrid vessel would reduce emissions by 53% while meeting all of the same operational capabilities as the Sproul.

“Collectively, the U.S. academic research fleet has burned over 420 million gallons of diesel fuel and emitted over 9.4 billion pounds of carbon dioxide,” Applegate noted in a recent presentation on the feasibility of zero-emissions vessels. Furthermore, particulate emissions are a major source of air pollution in coastal areas, directly impacting human health throughout the Southern California coastline, including Los Angeles and San Diego. “In contrast, “Zero-V” ships, as the proposed hydrogen-powered vessels have been named, “don’t contaminate the air and water immediately surrounding the ship, they are quieter leading to less noise pollution and interference with acoustic measurements, and they have near-instant power delivery allowing for greater maneuverability,” the petition noted.

Scripps’s continued use of diesel-powered research vessels directly contradicts the University of California’s goals of achieving carbon neutrality by 2025, and the broader goals of the United States of achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. A recent report by the International Energy Agency found that shipping will be one of the hardest sectors to decarbonize by 2050, a necessary goal to meet if we are to have a shot at maintaining global warming below 1.5 ℃. Ships, especially research vessels, have long service lives, meaning a transition to zero-emissions vessels is necessary now to arrive at a zero-emissions fleet by 2050. An immediate commitment by Scripps to a zero-emissions research fleet would set an example for other research institutions and the shipping industry as a whole that ship decarbonization is here to stay, and will encourage investments in zero-emissions technologies and infrastructure, ultimately driving down the cost and increasing the availability of zero-emissions vessels.

So, will Scripps leadership commit to bringing Zero-V ships onto the fleet? If so, when? Scripps’ newest research vessel, R/V Sally Ride, came online in 2016 and burns diesel just like the rest of the fleet. It has a long polluting life ahead.

The Students for Electrified and Sustainable Ships will present the signed petition to the Scripps administration on Monday, June 14th.