For Hornblower, the integration of biodiesel into its latest boats was a natural evolution of its environmental stewardship. The company has led the charge in the industry, in terms of reducing its fleet’s impacts on the environment.
In April of last year, the Hornblower Group announced the acquisition of Entertainment Cruises, uniting the best-known names in the river and harbor cruising industry in one company.
Soon after, Hornblower introduced biodiesel to one of its newly acquired fleets — 10 boats on the Chicago River and Lake Michigan — which include dinner and sightseeing cruises.
For Hornblower, the integration of biodiesel into its latest boats was a natural evolution of its environmental stewardship. The San Francisco-based company has been an industry leader in operating more sustainably to reduce its impact on the environment.
Hornblower launched its pioneering environmental management and education program, “Respect Our Planet,” in 2005. The initiative has shaped sustainability measures — such as sourcing more sustainable products, using reclaimed and eco-friendly materials in new yachts, improving fuel efficiency; and incorporating wind, solar and hybrid technology into vessels when possible. Respect Our Planet also educates guests on Hornblower’s sustainability efforts and shares suggestions for sustainable living.
With recent acquisitions of Entertainment Cruises and Boston Harbor Cruises, Hornblower has been able to bring its environmental mission to more communities.
The switch to biodiesel in Chicago began by working closely with Al Warren Oil Co., a Hammond, Indiana-based fuel company serving the Chicago area. Al Warren Oil has extensive experience as both a supplier and user of biodiesel.
Hornblower first tested running its vessels on B5, a fuel blend containing 5 percent biodiesel. Then it moved up to B11. After seeing success with the lower-level blends, the company rolled out an official schedule to move all 10 of its vessels to B20 biodiesel — a commonly used blend that combines an affordable price tag, lowered emissions, solid cold-weather performance, materials compatibility and the ability to act as a solvent.
Hornblower first introduced a hybrid boat in 2009 in San Francisco Bay, as part of Alcatraz Cruises — which ferries people to the infamous former prison. The company also invested $4 million to retrofit a 64-foot catamaran with a 400-horsepower electric motor powered by a 320-kilowatt generator and 380-volt battery pack that supplements its clean diesel engine. The boat uses two, 10-foot wind turbines and photovoltaic solar panels to power all house loads. Since then, Hornblower has added more hybrid vessels to Alcatraz Cruises, making it the only hybrid passenger ferry fleet in North America.
The company said one of its hybrid vessels reduces its annual diesel consumption by more than 29,000 gallons. That is equivalent to taking 58 cars off the road permanently or planting 90 acres of trees. The hybrid boat uses approximately six gallons of diesel fuel per hour, compared to 30 gallons per hour used by a conventional ferryboat.
The company has also replaced boat engines with cleaner Tier 3 marine engines. Tier 3 is a federal emission standard to reduce particulate matter and nitrogen oxides.
Historically, water transportation is not known for its environmentally friendly practices. But that has begun to change across the maritime industry, thanks in part to new global regulations. In January, the International Maritime Organization — a United Nations shipping agency — began banning ships from using fuels with a sulfur content more than 0.5 percent. The rule, adopted in 2016, has spurred the testing of biofuels in ocean-going ships.
Hornblower now uses B20 in all of its Chicago cruise vessels and has not had issues with the vessels’ mechanics. Boat operators find B20 works equally well in the full-throttle Seadog boats that generate thrills for guests on Lake Michigan, as well as Hornblower’s sleek dining vessels that cruise the city’s waterways at a more leisurely pace.
What’s more, B20 is helping the company continue its environmental commitment to the communities it serves.
“We are stewards of our environment,” said Dan Russell, regional VP of Hornblower Cruises and Events in Chicago. “We care very much about water pollution and air pollution. Anything we can do to lower those on our end is a very good thing.”
Hornblower Cruises and Events Chicago is a member of the B20 Club, a partnership between the Illinois Soybean Association checkoff program and American Lung Association that recognizes elite Illinois fleets operating their equipment on biodiesel blends of B20 or greater.