Great news! Well, maybe. The maritime industry seems on the verge of a breakthrough in so-called green propulsion. Well, possibly.
For the last several years, there have been bold headlines and exciting concept drawings of state-of-the-art commercial ships featuring auxiliary wind or green-fuel options. At the same time, the fleet of fully electric vessels, which are seeing steady increases in range and power, is on the rise. A number of maritime leaders — including the world’s largest shipping company — have multiple vessels under construction as we speak.
Is the future now? Is the future soon? Or will the future forever be on the horizon, blurry and ungraspable?
Stories announcing new technology are fraught with peril, as reporting on “the next big thing” often ages poorly. (Anyone reading this story on Google Glass?) As markets and new innovations sort themselves out, it’s unclear what will emerge, but it’s easy to get caught in the fervor of what might be. When it comes to lower-emission commercial vessels, it does appear as if some kind of change is approaching. Well, we think.
Rather than try to predict what might be on the horizon, we can only wonder if we are approaching a tipping point. At the moment, businesses that want to invest in alternative propulsion are faced with steep costs, but many of them have still made the choice to go greener. When will there be a critical mass of new of wind-assisted and/or alternative-fuel ships that shift economies and the scales of production in a meaningful way to offer efficient and lower-cost alternatives?
Green Wind Assist
In 2019, we asked, “Will there be a new age of sail in the shipping industry?” At the time, there were some encouraging trends. “From a [global] fleet size of around 60,000 ships, roughly 10,000 could be using wind by 2030,” Gavin Allwright, the secretary of the International Windship Association, told us a few years ago. (Another source puts the global fleet size closer to 90,000.)
“Enthusiasm for wind power is growing,” according to an August 2022 article by the Washington Post, which laid out some of the exciting but small-scale alternatives. (The Post’s article reads like every story we’ve ever written on the subject: There are encouraging trends, enthusiasm and a handful of ships experimenting with alternatives, amounting to a mere drop in the bucket compared to the diesel-powered fleet.) Allwright told us in 2019 that once about 100 wind-assist installations are made, “We will start to see a self-sustaining growth developing along with production costs starting to drop and economies of scale starting to be felt.”
Keep in mind that any wind-assisted ship will still have diesel engines; sails and kites only offer mariners the chance to throttle back, just a little, which can actually result in large reductions of emissions.
Here are a few recent(ish) announcements on the wind-assist front:
— Last year, Swedish shipping consultancy Wallenius Marine was enlisted to design what was then the world’s first wind-powered roll-on/roll-off vessel. (The French ship pictured above appears to be the second of its kind.) The 7,000-car-capacity vessel will operate at speeds of 10-12 knots while under sail, “or faster using a supplemental power system.” The concept seeks to reduce emissions by as much as 90 percent, and will be “ready for the high seas by 2025.”
— AlfaWall Oceanbird, another Swedish company, said that it will launch a fully wind-propelled ship in 2026, according to the Washington Post. (Link above.) The company currently uses “wing rigs” on some ships, which appear similar to a concept by the Bay Area based Wind + Wing Technologies. “If we’re going to change the world, we need to change the 90,000 vessels that are already sailing today,” the managing director of AlfaWall Oceanbird told the Post.
— A few companies are producing kites that are flown off ships — a concept that is at least a decade old. In 2008, the German company SkySails installed six kite systems on large freighters, but the idea never took root. “The commercial-shipping industry has no money for new, forward-thinking technology,” Sven Klingenberg, the cofounder and head of sales at SkySails, told us a few years ago. He added, “The human factor was a decisive thing. If [mariners] are strictly like truck drivers bringing freight from A to B and have no passion for sailing and kiting, that was the number one blocking factor.”
The French company Airseas also created a kite for auxiliary power on ships, which could reduce “emissions and fuel consumption by 20% on average,” the Washington Post said.
Green Alternative Fuels
Over the past few years, most of the headlines about green ships centered around the commercial-maritime industry. Apparently, the cruise-ship industry is getting in on the act as well.
In December 2022, the New York Times reported: Hydrogen-Powered Ships Are Coming. How Green Is Your Cruise? “Viking, a luxury line whose passengers tend to be wealthy and college-educated, said it is building ocean ships that will run on hydrogen fuel cells, an investment that will cost the company an additional $40 million per ship. Royal Caribbean Group, a behemoth in the industry which owns three cruise lines, said it will launch a ship in 2023 that will be equipped with ‘a large-scale, hybrid power source,’ a combination of fuel cells, batteries and dual-fuel engines that use liquefied natural gas.” Last year, the liquefied natural gas-powered, 1,110-ft, 4,000-passenger Disney Wish set sail from Port Canaveral, Florida.
The Times said that cruise lines have touted LNG as a cleaner alternative fossil fuel compared to heavy fuel, or bunker fuel; LNG can act as a stopgap until a more sustainable energy source becomes available, cruise lines have said. “But environmental groups said methane, the primary component of natural gas, traps even more heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide emitted from heavy fuel. ‘LNG is totally a false solution,'” an environmentalist told the Times.
This kind of news exemplifies the incredibly slow, two-steps-forward, one-and-a-half-steps-back trend that is the green-ship movement: A huge company with a fleet of hundreds of vessels has ordered one or a small handful of ships that should be in use in the near future. This fraction of the fleet will certainly be greener, but not necessarily fully green — and perhaps not that green at all.
With that said, there are a few LNG commercial ships that have recently hit the water:
— Pasha Hawaii took delivery of the 774-ft MV George III last year. It’s the first LNG-powered ship on the US West Coast and the first to serve Hawaii.
— Last year, the Brussels Express, a 15,000 TEU container ship, became “the first large containership in the world to have been converted to liquefied natural gas (LNG) propulsion,” according to Marine Link.
Both ships are “dual-fuel,” meaning they can also burn diesel.
Hydrogen seems to be among the most promising alternative fuels. Last year, we reported that Berkeley Marine Center was looking at repowering small vessels with electric motors that could be run by hydrogen fuel cells, as well as batteries. “I had been searching for a hydrogen fuel cell for 25 years,” Cree Partridge, the owner of BMC, told us. Partridge partnered with the Berkeley-based PowerUp, and refit a 1940 wooden Spitsgatter as the inaugural hydrogen-powered vessel.
Partridge envisioned an “on-site electrolysis method” at BMC, using solar panels to create electricity, which releases hydrogen from the water molecule. The hydrogen then gets compressed and put into containers. This method describes green hydrogen, but the gas is most commonly made by using fossil fuels; grey hydrogen is produced from natural gas or petroleum, and brown or black hydrogen is produced from coal.
The first question, then, for any company purporting to use hydrogen is: How is it made? The alternative is only as good as its source.
Green Electric Vessels
— On January 9, Singapore-based Sembcorp Marine delivered the final completed unit of three identical, fully battery-operated roll-on/roll-off passenger ferries for Norwegian ferry operator Norled.
“The zero-emission vessel will be capable of operating at a service speed of 10 knots, powered by lithium-ion batteries which are charged using green hydro-electric power,” according to Offshore Energy Biz. “The ferry can also run on a combined battery-diesel hybrid backup mode as required.”
— Last year, the 195-ft, 200-passenger fully-electric ferry Ellen set the distance record for a single battery charge at 50 nautical miles. “The company [Danfoss] is so proud of the achievement that they plan to submit it to Guinness World of Records,” The Maritime Executive Said.
Bravo on the achievement. This bodes well for the future (we think), but also illustrates just how painfully slow and incremental these baby steps are, and how far there is to go toward true sustainability.