LONG BEACH, Calif. (AP) -- In less than a year, many of the towering cargo ships loading and unloading goods at California ports won't just tie up at dock — they'll also plug in.
In January, the state will become the first government body in the world to require container fleets docking at its major ports to shut off their diesel engines and use electricity for 50 percent of their visits — or face crippling fines. The requirements also include slashing fleet emissions by half, and those requirements rise to 80 percent in 2020.
The regulations by the California Air Resources Board mark a sea change in the industry that has ports, shippers and terminal owners who do business in some of the busiest port complexes in the U.S. scrambling to meet the deadline and navigate new technological challenges.
It also comes at a time when California's bustling ports are under increasing pressure to remain competitive while at the same time reducing pollution with initiatives that have, in some cases, been met with harsh opposition from the truckers and shippers that are their life blood.
East Coast ports have been racing to deepen their harbors to accept the supersized cargo vessels that are expected to start arriving after the Panama Canal finishes a major expansion in 2015, gigantic deep-water vessels from Asia that have so far been primarily West Coast customers.
The Port of Long Beach, which showed off its shore power terminals Monday at a summit on the topic, began installing electricity at a handful of berths several years ago and has offered shippers new "green" lease terms since that included plugging in while at dock. It already has power flowing to four berths and has 12 more under construction in an overall plan to pour $200 million into the transition.
For its part, the twin Port of Los Angeles was the first in the world to offer a plug-in dock in 2004 and now has 10 berths with shore power capability — more than any other port in the world. By January, the port plans to have 24 berths online for electric power. The two ports together are the eighth-busiest port complex in the world, as measured by container volume.
The ports are not responsible, however, for retrofitting the ships or for the electricity used at dock — sizeable costs that have some shippers grumbling about upgrading their entire fleets to do business in one state. Early estimates show that retrofitting ships will cost between $500,000 and $1 million per vessel, said Renee Moilanen, an environmental specialist associate with the Port of Long Beach.
One shipper at Monday's event, Matson Inc., said it has already spent $14 million retrofitting its fleet at an average cost of $1.7 million per vessel. The novelty of the project meant the company, which mainly serves Hawaii and Guam, took two years to figure out how to customize the technology for the five different kinds of diesel ships in its fleet.
The company had to install 10- and 25-ton air conditioning units on board to cool the transformers required, said Lee Lampland, manager of new construction for Matson.
"A lot of this equipment, especially the transformer, has a 12-month lead time," he said. "You're not going to go down to Home Depot and pick this stuff up."
Terminals where the ships dock have also had a learning curve: The cables required to deliver electricity to ships of that size are three inches in diameter and weigh 20 pounds a foot, said Paul Gagnon, vice president of SSA Marine, which operates cargo terminals.
"You don't go over like you do at your home and plug it into a power strip," he said. "The safety of personnel is critical."
Shipping fleets must file quarterly reports with the state and if they miss a goal, they can face fines of $10,000 to $100,000 per hour for each hour the fleet is out of compliance.
That's also created concerns among shippers who worry that if they can't plug in for a visit or two because of technical issues, they'll miss their quota and be assessed a huge fine, said T.L. Garrett, vice president of the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association, which represents international shipping companies and terminal operators directly affected by the rule change.
A pending state Senate bill would address that issue, he said.
"The controversy that exists is over the expense and over the benefits of that expense," said Garrett. "It's the capital cost and it's very hard over the life of the equipment to pay back that cost."
Still, ports have largely embraced the opportunity to clean up their emissions and say it's the latest in a line of changes to improve air quality, from requiring cleaner-running trucks to asking ships to reduce their speed into port to creating a zone around the shore within which vessels must use less polluting fuel.
In Long Beach, the second-busiest port in the U.S., pollution from massive cargo ships makes up 60 percent of all port emissions and 40 percent of those come from diesel ships that are docked and running their engines to power on-board systems and refrigeration, said Moilanen.
The port has already reduced its overall pollution by 75 percent since 2005 through a combination of voluntary and mandatory programs and shore power is a key part of further reducing those emissions, she said, comparing a diesel ship at berth to a car idling in a driveway for three days.
Hooking up just one of the huge container ships to electricity instead is like taking 33,000 cars off the road, she said.
"Ships by far are the biggest challenge and they're the hardest to get at because they're flagged in foreign countries and deployed all over the world. We don't have a lot of tools to get at them," she said. "That's why shore power is critical to us."
The new regulations would apply to ports in San Diego, Long Beach, Los Angeles, Port Hueneme, San Francisco and Oakland.
Some other locations, such as the Port of Tacoma, allow vessels to plug in while at dock, but it's voluntary and primarily used by ships that return hundreds of times to the same berth. The technology is also attractive for cruise ships, which dock repeatedly at the same location but use lots of power.
Ports in Japan, Hong Kong, Rotterdam and Antwerp have all expressed interest in shore power, said J. Christopher Lytle, executive director of the Port of Long Beach.
"I think the shipping lines understand that this is an idea whose time has come," he said. "This is the start and I think you'll see this spreading. It just makes sense."