Auckland Port Abandons Automation Project and Welcomes World’s First E-Tug  

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Ports of Auckland’s new tug Sparky cruised into the port last week, notching a milestone as the world’s first full-sized ship-handling electric tug.

Ports of Auckland chief executive Roger Gray says welcoming Sparky is an exciting day for everyone. 

“Sparky is the first e-tug of its type in the world and was a truly innovative project for us. Her arrival marks a big step towards the ports’ decarbonisation of operations and towards our long-term emissions reduction goals,” he says. 

Ports of Auckland signed a contract with Dutch company Damen Shipyards in 2019 to buy the fully electric port tug.

The Damen RSD-E Tug 2513 has a 70-tonne bollard pull, the same as the port’s strongest diesel tug Hauraki, also built by Damen. 

It features 80 battery racks holding 2240 batteries, totalling 2784 kWh of power. The e-tug is expected to do up to four shipping moves on a charge of batteries. The recharge time is approximately two hours.

Sparky is anticipated to save around 465 tonnes of CO2 in diesel emissions annually.

To ensure safety, it also has two 1000kW backup generator sets, which will only be used in cases of emergency or some fault that is not part of business as usual. 

The expected cost of operating Sparky is less than a third of the cost of running a diesel tug.

“I would like to thank the port’s Marine team and acknowledge our partner Damen for their work,” Gray says.

“When the project started, there were no emissions-free ship-handling options; however, Damen were up for the challenge, and now they’ve changed the game with our e-tug Sparky. 

“E-tugs are the future for ship handling, and Ports of Auckland are proud to have led the way,” he says.

Ports of Auckland marine and multi-cargo operations general manager Allan D’Souza has been leading the e-tug project for the port and was looking forward to the arrival day. 

“Back in 2016, when we first pitched the idea for a fully electric tug, we were told we were dreaming. To see Sparky in real life like this is that dream coming true.

“Due to the pandemic, we were unable to travel, so we’ve been watching the build, launch and initial sea trials online. To welcome her to Tāmaki Makaurau now is incredible.

“You’ll be able to spot Sparky on the water as her superstructure is painted bright green, unlike our diesel tugs. What you won’t notice is noise or smoke; being electric, she’s a lot quieter and cleaner than our current diesel tugs.” 

Sparky was named via a public competition and vote in 2020.


While Ports of Auckland welcomed Sparky last week, the directors have also made the stunning but bold decision to end the long-running automation project at the Fergusson Container Terminal.

This decision, they said, is in the best interests of the company, its stakeholders, and the efficiency of a national supply chain.

The project has been controversial because of its on-off-on course through the pandemic years 2020-22, including a months-long hiatus during the peak of the border lockdown that prevented physical support from the technology suppliers.

The rather breathtaking decision to end the project will likely intensify the controversy. The cessation will mean a significant one-off multi-million write-off on the port company’s balance sheet, which is a 100% Auckland City-owned business.

But the decision will also clear the air and let the port put its foot down on a return to manual processing of containers that has already begun.

Ports of Auckland board chair Jan Dawson said, “We have made this decision after careful consideration of the current status of the project, advice from independent experts, and the work required to achieve full terminal automation.”

The ‘qualified experts’ concluded that more money and time were needed to make the system fit for its purpose. Yet, neither could confidently say how long or how much investment that would take.

The automation project is now two years over the initial delivery date and remains unable to meet operational targets. The primary reason for the ‘end now’ decision is fundamental: automation is understood to have serious shortcomings.

The automation project was a complex integration of multiple vendors, equipment, and software applications to design and implement an operation with targeted productivity levels and the necessary level of system safety assurance.

Ms Dawson says, “Our review indicated that despite the best efforts of our team and our supplier, the project is experiencing continuing delays to full terminal roll out, the system is not performing to expectations.

And to put it plainly, the directors said,

“We do not have confidence in the projected timeline or cost to completion.

“With these uncertainties and the need to transform the port’s performance, the board has determined the best course of action is to cease automation of the Container Terminal.”

Ports of Auckland has been operating in overload during the pandemic with a split operation. Chief executive Roger Gray said, “this is a positive decision which will come as a relief to many at Ports of Auckland and in the wider supply chain.

“It gives us certainty about the future and allows us to focus on our core job: safely providing a great service to New Zealand importers and exporters.

“It will also help us get the business back to the level of profitability we have delivered in the past.

“The end of automation does not mean the loss of all the investment and work that went into it. The new infrastructure built as part of the project – for example, the new wharf and cranes – provides extra capacity, which is essential for future growth.

“We will, however, have to write off approximately $65 million in investments which will no longer be used, mainly the automation software and guidance system,” which is unable to be returned.

“Ports of Auckland attempted automation for the right reasons: to lift capacity, productivity and profitability without further port expansion or reclamation.”

The project was about halfway through, and the port would have eventually gotten it to completion. 

The automated area was variable in the speed of equipment clearance. Mr Gray told us that sometimes performance was barely adequate at 20 or more moves an hour crane rate, “but it was spasmodic and inconsistent. We had to continually manually intervene, and the software would run slow.”

The port asked the vendor when the system would perform stable and achieve a reasonable crane rate. But that question could not be precisely answered. The absence of certainty as to when the system would be stable was core to the decision made by the board.

“It was a very brave decision. It will allow us to really focus on a go-forward approach to serving our customers and the community.”

The port has already rolled back to manual processing, evident in the increased capacity data in the terminal.

A recruitment programme for port workers is underway. Ship calls remain disrupted.

“There’s an acknowledgement coming from the sector that we’re starting to turn the corner on performance. Shipping lines have lifted congestion surcharges.

“We’re effectively turning 13,000 TEU a week, and our objective is 15-16,000 TEU by the end of the year.”

The infrastructure capacity upgrade work was delivered as planned. This included the new Fergusson North wharf and cranes, major pavement upgrades, a new truck loading area, new refrigerated container capacity, and other upgrades.

The dismayed response from Auckland City to the port board’s move is understandable and the call for an investigation of the fundamentals equally unsurprising. Mr Gray confirmed that an independent investigation is to be initiated. 

Source: TransportTalk / The New Zealand Shipping Gazette

Video Source: Ports of Auckland

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