Mackinac Ferry Kicks Off New Electric Future for Michigan’s Great Lakes

Eventually, state officials aim to convert 27 more Mackinac Island ferries to electric power as part of the Mackinac Economic Alliance’s latest strategic plan to create full-time, year-round marine and shipbuilding jobs in the straits region.

By Kyle Kaminski

March 21, 2023

MICHIGAN—Your next trip to Mackinac Island could be a bit friendlier for the environment—and much quieter—after one of the area’s most popular ferry companies decided this month to ditch the 35-year-old diesel engines on one of its ferries for zero-emission, all-electric power. 

The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy this month announced a $3 million grant to Mackinac Island Ferry Co., formerly known as Star Line, to replace two 1988 diesel engines with two new electric propulsion motors on a ferry called the Chippewa. Officials said the project will begin immediately as part of a two- to three-year overhaul that will also involve redesigning and modernizing the vessel’s hull and overall appearance. 

The grant also jumpstarts what state officials view as a new, electric future for the Great Lakes.

“We are continuing to make investments to lead the future of mobility and electrification, so we can grow our economy, create good-paying jobs, and lower energy costs for families and businesses,” Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said in a statement. “Our mobility leadership must extend from electric cars and buses on the road to industrial power and watercraft, too.”

The new ferry motor is expected to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 14,152 metric tons of carbon dioxide over the course of its lifetime—which is roughly the equivalent to the amount that would be produced by 3,000 typical, gasoline-powered passenger vehicles in a single year.

The state Fuel Transformation Program grant—which is funded through a $64.8 million settlement with Volkswagen—will cover half of the cost of the project, as well as fund other investments in electric power infrastructure in other parts of the state. In a statement, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said it will help keep the ferries cost-effective and sustainable for decades.

The Mackinac Island passenger ferry Chippewa will be converted from diesel to electric. (State of Michigan via Mackinac Island Ferry Co.)

But this month’s announcement is also about much more than just one ferry going electric. 

The grant funding aligns neatly with Whitmer’s MI Healthy Climate Plan, which was formed in 2020 to combat the climate crisis and aims to make the state entirely carbon-neutral by 2050.

Eventually, state officials aim to convert 27 more Mackinac Island ferries to electric power as part of the Mackinac Economic Alliance’s latest strategic plan to create full-time, year-round marine and shipbuilding jobs in the straits region. The long-term goal of the Mackinac Island Transportation Master Plan is to transition 138 large ships to electric or hybrid-electric power.

New shore power infrastructure at the Mackinac City ferry dock—part of broader power upgrades planned for St. Ignace and Mackinac Island—are also covered by the grant.

“This project is a first critical step in the strategy to upgrade and modernize marine transportation in the straits,” Mackinac Economic Alliance Director Chris Byrnes said in a statement. “Of course, Mackinac Island is famous for alternative modes of transportation, as cars are not allowed on the island. Everyone walks, rides bikes or horses and, of course, ferry boats, so the island is already a Michigan leader in alternative forms of transportation.”

After converting the Chippewa to electric power, Mackinac Island Ferry Co. officials said they intend to similarly upgrade the propulsion systems on its seven other steel vessels that operate passenger or freight service to Mackinac Island. Eventually, the company will evaluate its seven high-speed aluminum passenger vessels for upgrades to electric or hybrid electric propulsion.

In a related move in January, plans to build a new, more efficient, reliable, and environmentally friendly Charlevoix-to-Beaver Island passenger ferry advanced after a $6.63 million federal grant added to a previous $14 million investment from the state.

An Electric Future for the Great Lakes—and Beyond

A separate $2.2 million Fuel Transformation Program grant is set to cover two-thirds of the cost to install electric shore power at an international dock downstream from the Soo Locks. Officials said the shore power, supplied by nearly 50% renewable energy, will reduce the need for docked vessels to idle their diesel engines, lowering carbon emissions and improving air quality.

The state Office of Future Mobility and Electrification is also working to launch a new grant program to encourage companies to test and deploy other electric recreational and commercial technologies in the Great Lakes. That program, officials said, is also geared toward creating the nation’s first regional freshwater electric boat charging network—right here in Michigan. 

State officials are also seeking bids for another $5 million project to convert airport ground support equipment, port cargo handling equipment, and forklifts to electric power. 


  • Kyle Kaminski

    Kyle Kaminski is an award-winning investigative journalist with more than a decade of experience covering news across Michigan. Prior to joining The ‘Gander, Kyle worked as the managing editor at City Pulse in Lansing and as a reporter for the Traverse City Record-Eagle.

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