Tom Levitt writes in The Guardian about some of the possibilities to use wind power to reduce the emissions in global shipping.
Why aren’t ships using wind-power to cut their climate footprint?
MS Estraden looks, on first glance, like a normal cargo ship. Just another one of the 50,000 vessels transporting pretty much everything we buy, sell and consume.
But on closer inspection, ship-spotting enthusiasts will notice two large cylinders rising from the deck. These are rotating devices that capture wind and help propel the ship forward. It is technology first trialled back in the 1920s, but only now brought into commercial use.
For the past year and a half, the MS Estraden, which belongs to the Dutch-owned shipping company Bore, has been testing out the cylinders on its regular journey between Rotterdam and Teesport, on the north-east coast of the UK. The result: it has cut fuel costs by 6% (pdf).
“It’s hard to generalise because unlike many other technologies, the savings are dependent on the route sailed (and the weather conditions specific to that route), but the savings on large tankers and bulk carriers could be greater than 10%,” says Tristan Smith, shipping and climate change expert at UCL.
Smith has been following the MS Estraden and its wind cylinders trial with interest as he looks into ways shipping companies can cut their greenhouse gas emissions. It’s a thankless task at times, with shipping and climate change a largely mute topic among the media, politicians and NGOs.
Shipping brings us 90% of everything we buy and consume, yet most of us remain blind to both its role in our lives and its contribution to global climate emissions: currently around 3%. The industry has no targets for reducing emissions; the climate talks in Paris last year were skilfully negotiated with warnings that a cap on emissions for shipping would be a cap on global trade and growth.
On current projections, the sector could be contributing upwards of 6% (pdf) of global greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
Although the UN agency that regulates shipping puts out glowing press releases, its only two policies so far are achieving little. There is an agreement for ships to record and report data on fuel consumption, but not until 2018 at the earliest, and rules to ensure new ships being built are more efficient.
“Recent new ships have regularly been achieving design improvements not because of the regulation, but because of market forces including an oversupply of ships forcing greater competition and increased pressure for owners to seek margins through efficiency,” says Smith.
Shipping companies blame factors outside their control for their climate impact, in particular a tripling in demand for shipping over the past 40 years. However, as the MS Estraden shows, there are tangible options that shipping companies could pursue to reduce emissions if they wanted. Bore says it was “proud” to be the first company to demonstrate renewable energy-powered vessels and wanted to find ways to cut its environmental impact.
“It’s [shipping] a conservative industry,” says Tuomas Riski, CEO of Norsepower, the Finnish company that developed the wind-powered cylinders used on MS Estraden. Although he does now have interest from other shipping companies in Europe and Asia, the original funding for his research came from venture-capitalists rather than the shipping sector.
Another company pushing wind technology is the Germany-based SkySails. It has equipped five ships so far with automated kites to help propel them and cut fuel consumption. Despite average fuel savings of 2-3 tonnes a day, it has found it difficult to attract interest from ship companies.
“Many ship owners struggle to survive and there’s not much money for investing in solutions improving long-term profitability – ‘We don’t even know if we’re still there in five years’ is what we hear,” says Henning Kuehl, head of business development at SkySails.
“There’s also a structural problem slowing down the process: ship owners (who have to make the investment) often don’t pay for the fuel – that’s the charterer’s duty. The charterer on the other side doesn’t charter the ship for long enough a period to make low-carbon technologies pay back.”
Making green shipping work
With a wariness about renewables, low fuel prices and little political incentive, the onus is on numerous trials to convince shipping companies of the benefit. “The sector is risk-adverse so expanding uptake requires a high burden of proof,” says Conor Walsh, research associate on shipping at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research. “Most of the technologies at the moment are low-scale and not mainstream. There are not yet many in commercial use.
One fast-track solution could be for major users of cargo such as retailers and commodity companies to start insisting on the use of more efficient, low-carbon ships. This is starting to happen – Cargill, for example, says that where possible it refuses to charter the most polluting vessels – but doesn’t involve renewable technologies such as wind.
Maersk, one of the few shipping companies to set itself targets for reducing emissions, says cost savings rather than consumer demand remains the main driving force. “There is a limit to how far we can go alone,” says John Kornerup Bang, Maersk’s lead adviser on climate change. “We need fair regulation and limits for the industry, otherwise there is a gap between the free ride of those doing nothing and us.”
With no sign yet of any industry-wide emission reduction targets, Kuehl says the responsibility is on all of those involved in shipping to help the sector think long term. “The market is still quite opportunistic with charterers hopping from one vessel to the next, depending on which is the cheapest. To make a change, cargo owners, charterers and ship owners need to come to one table and work out long-term cooperations so that green shipping works for each party.”