Interview: Five Minutes with Robert Ekse, President, EBDG

February 28, 2023

Robert Ekse, President, Elliott Bay Design Group (EBDG). Photo courtesy EBDG
Robert Ekse, President, Elliott Bay Design Group (EBDG). Photo courtesy EBDG

Late last year we caught up with Robert Ekse, President, Elliott Bay Design Group (EBDG), for his take on how the Future Fuels debate is effectively shaping maritime technology development and vessel investment.


  • Most reading these pages know the EBDG name, but can you give us a quick update?

Elliott Bay Design Group has been around for a long time, [at first] primarily focused on ferry design and refurbishment. We've branched out over the years in many different directions, including tugs and barges and other workboats. Elliott Bay brings a small company feel and communication style to an otherwise fairly crowded market.

  • When I say “alternative fuels,” what’s the first thing that comes to mind?

Unfortunately, there's no single answer, which can be frustrating for operators. But the reality is that there is no one fit, because of the diversity of boats and routes. Our focus is to open the dialog and have a conversation around the options. [Putting it in terms of the automobile industry], if I commute in my car for three hours a day, I can't buy a Nissan Leaf. That car may have 120 miles of range, and it’s not going to suit my needs if I don't have charging stations along the way. That's a similar challenge to vessel operators. The all-electric solution may not work for them. Point-to-point short distances, the kind of energy that we're talking about is difficult to solve when those distances grow, and the power requirements skyrocket.

  • Then you have legislation which at time seems to leapfrog technology.

California is leading the way with some legislation that is controversial at times. The technology is working towards those [emission reduction] goals and results, but there's a struggle because there's a big learning curve. There are many questions: What’s out that that can fit into the maritime industry? What’s right for my company? Should I have an all-electric vessel, or should I look at ammonia, methanol, hydrogen or some kind of hybrid? What are my goals, and do those power systems actually get me to my goals? Maybe it’s a contract where you have to lower your emissions by X. Or is it a corporate-driven mandate saying fleet-wide emissions are going to be down by X by 2050? Or maybe it's a goal to achieve funding. Those variables change the conversation in getting to a result, and in turn the equipment that they have in their boat.

  • So how pervasive is this emission reduction discussion with your clients today?

It's on everyone's mind, whether that is a discussion around the alternative fuel that is right for me, or how can I continue to run my equipment as is and survive the legislation that's coming? In fact, what legislation is coming? The maritime industry is a very efficient industry. It's efficient in ton per mile and passenger mile. Any way you measure it, compared to over-the-road transportation, it wins hands down. There's a lot of products, material and people that gets moved over the water in our river and coastal water systems. So how does that drive a conversation if the motivation is to replace equipment, but we're already running fairly efficiently? Many are asking "why are we talking about this with the marine industry?" Then there are a lot of small companies that don't have the financial wherewithal to even consider some kind of replacement; and they look at their equipment and they see waste if they need to essentially throw away. It’s a difficult conversation, and it's challenging from many different perspectives. But every project has at least one conversation [focused on future fuels].

  • Obviously this topic is transforming the marine industry; but how is it transforming EBDG?

It's really about getting with the technical providers and helping them navigate R&D expenditures. Whether it's a methanol generator or it is some kind of ammonia technology, none of this is past the test [phase]. We, our employees, need to be involved with those [companies and] developing. We're aiming to partner with these folks, to help our people understand what they're developing, to create some dialog around the challenges that might be in the integration portion of that technology development. That's what we can do to help: to have awareness around the new technology development, so we better understand how that might fit into a client's platform.

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