The Pearl Mist, a cruise ship from Pearl Seas Cruises, docked on the Portland waterfront on May 6. (Portland Phoenix/Evan Edmonds)
The Pearl Mist, a cruise ship from Pearl Seas Cruises, docked on the Portland waterfront on May 6. (Portland Phoenix/Evan Edmonds)
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Anyone walking the waterfront recently may have noticed the return of cruise ships to Portland. A late April visit from Holland America’s Zaandam, a ship that can hold about 1,400 passengers, marked the start of the city’s cruise season, over which 123 such vessels are scheduled to visit Portland through November 10. Larger ships, some of them carrying up to 4,000 passengers, won’t arrive until mid-July. The Pearl Mist, a vessel from Pearl Seas Cruises, was seen lurking on the shoreline on a beautiful Saturday morning on May 6. 

The pandemic and its restrictions slowed the flow of cruise ships to Portland’s waterfront, at least temporarily. Last year, the cruise industry saw a return to typical business after a pandemic-related “no sail order” curtailed operations in 2020 and led to minimal activity for ships in 2021. Mixed opinions met the return of the ships in 2022, with optimism from waterfront restaurateurs and business owners. 

Over that time, advocates saw an opportunity to act, citing longstanding concerns about the impacts of the massive tourist ships’ carbon emissions and wastewater discharge. Others objected to the flood of tourists in the Old Port, adding to congestion in the busiest time of the year. Both of Maine’s most prosperous ports, Bar Harbor and Portland, saw citizens take to the polls last fall to quell the impacts of the notorious vessels, with varying results. 

Those in the industry see clear waters ahead. The Maine Office of Tourism anticipates the cruise ship season to be even bigger than last year, which was the first to operate without restrictions since 2019. 

Behind the scenes, officials are eyeing a substantial change to put cruise ships in line with the city’s environmental goals. 

In the aftermath of a Portland referendum question last fall, the city’s Sustainability and Transportation Committee has begun to tackle the issue of regulating cruise ship emissions and focusing on providing shore power plugins to ships that visit Portland. 

Shore power plugins allow cruise ships to run on electricity from the port they are docked at rather than running their own engines using fuel, which is the source of a ship’s emissions. During the tourist season, ships can dock in Portland for eight to ten hours a time, emitting greenhouse gasses for the entirety of the stop. However, according to a report recently updated by the Environmental Protection Agency, ships plugged into shore power stations typically produce zero emissions.

Discussions about shifting to shore power have been seen by local officials as a gateway into improvement of Portland’s electric grid as a whole and potentially a huge step into transitioning the city away from fossil fuels.

City Councilor Andrew Zarro, who chairs the Sustainability and Transportation Committee, said it’s fortunate that discussions about shore power began last fall with the referendum because it helped make the need to expand Portland’s grid more widely known. 

Shifting to shore power is one of many planks in the city’s long-term goals outlined in “One Climate Future” a climate action plan for Portland and South Portland with goals for becoming more climate friendly and to reduce emissions by 80 percent by 2050. 

The One Climate Future model includes the effects of shore power hookups to be installed by 2040, decreasing emissions and energy consumption. “Once the grid is 100 percent renewable in 2050, the electricity provided through shore power will have no associated emissions,” the plan states. 

Right now, the capacity of the electric grid as a whole is a “bottleneck” for providing a shore power plugin, Zarro said.

“If it’s the will, the only way is to improve the whole grid,” Zarro said. Expanding the grid could be considered a “once in a generation opportunity” to start transitioning Portland away from fossil fuels, he said. Once shore power is available to cruise ships, then ships can be prohibited from running their engines while in port.

Catching the drift

The cruise ship industry has not always been friendly to environmental regulation. And they are hardly environmentally friendly themselves. According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, an average cruise ship generates 210,000 gallons of sewage or wastewater in a week of travel, along with one million gallons of greywater, or wastewater from sinks, showers and laundries. 

But some in the industry have lately aimed for sustainability. The Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) has set a goal of zero net cruise emissions by 2050, which has been the impetus for ports worldwide to begin work toward options like shore power plugins.

A study is underway from Central Maine Power (CMP) and commissioned by the city of Portland and CruiseMaine, a division of the Maine Office of Tourism. The study is expected to address the planning needs and potential costs to expand the city’s electric grid and provide shore power for cruise ships. A spokesperson for CMP, Jonathan Breed, estimates that the study could be completed by late summer or early fall.

“Adding a shore power plugin to the electricity grid is similar in implementation to other grid interconnection projects, though certain requirements, such as underground and submarine cables, can be site-specific,” Breed told the Phoenix.

Zarro said he’s been encouraged by CMP’s progress on the study so far. He plans to call a special committee meeting as soon as the report is complete to keep the conversation moving.

Cruise Maine, which markets Maine’s ports to the tourism industry and cruise lines, has played a role in getting the CMP study underway.

“The demand for electricity on the peninsula has grown rapidly in recent years, both due to development and acceleration of electrification efforts across all sectors of our energy use,” said Sarah Flink, Cruise Maine’s executive director.

The goal with the CMP study, she added, is to ensure that cruise ships and shore power are factored into Portland’s electricity needs going forward — and so it can be implemented as soon as economically possible.

Cruising numbers are expected to match or exceed 2019’s industry numbers, Flink said, with Maine showing a similar trend — with a one or two percent increase in passenger numbers projected for the state.

According to Breed, CMP anticipates the time frame for expanding Portland’s grid to accommodate more electrification would “take several years to design, gain the necessary regulatory and permitting approvals, and implement a broader solution that will accommodate moderate to significant electrification.”

On a more local scale, the Bureau of Air Quality, a division of Maine’s Department of Environmental Protections, met with Portland city officials and cruise industry members last fall to discuss cruise ships’ impacts on air quality. 

According to Stacy Knapp, the bureau’s emissions inventory section manager, the DEP is considering ways to better track emissions data. That process could include relocating some monitoring stations that are part of an ongoing air quality monitoring project for Portland and South Portland. Knapp said Ocean Gateway is one potential location being discussed.

Bar Harbor residents passed a referendum restricting the number of cruise ship passengers disembarking on Bar Harbor ports to 1,000 per day. The initiative is expected to go to trial in July, MainePublic reported recently, after a group of business owners and harbor officials there sued the town, arguing that the ordinance and its aim to reduce disembarkation are unconstitutional. The season kicked off in Bar Harbor on May 4 with the arrival of the Norwegian Pearl.

A similar initiative failed in Portland last November. Later, would have mandated the construction of shoreside electrical power stations for cruise ships by 2028 and imposed a $2.50 per passenger surcharge to help pay for it. The proposed referendum was effectively abandoned by the Maine chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), a left-liberal organization which advocates for labor issues on behalf of workers, after a union representing longshoremen on Portland’s waterfront argued that the proposal would bring unintended consequences by reducing jobs. The two groups agreed to work together to shift focus on reducing emissions and moving toward shore power.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated an effect of the policy passed by Bar Harbor residents. The ordinance restricts visitors to 1,000 people per day.

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