To go clean, ship­pers dust off sails

In­dus­try looks to wind power to cut emis­sions at sea

The Morning Call - - BUSINESS CYCLE - By Kelvin Chan

LON­DON — As the ship­ping in­dus­try faces pres­sure to cut cli­mate-al­ter­ing green­house gases, one an­swer is blow­ing in the wind.

Euro­pean and U.S. tech com­pa­nies, in­clud­ing one backed by air­plane maker Air­bus, are pitch­ing fu­tur­is­tic sails to help cargo ships har­ness the free and end­less sup­ply of wind power. While they some­times don’t even look like sails — some are shaped like spin­ning columns — they rep­re­sent a cheap and re­li­able way to re­duce CO2 emis­sions for an in­dus­try that de­pends on a par­tic­u­larly dirty form of fos­sil fu­els.

“It’s an old tech­nol­ogy,” said Tuo­mas Riski, the CEO of Fin­land’s Norse­power, which added its “ro­tor sail” tech­nol­ogy for the first time to a tanker in Au­gust. “Our vi­sion is that sails are com­ing back to the seas.”

Den­mark’s A.P. MollerMaersk , the world’s big­gest ship­ping com­pany, is us­ing its Maersk Pel­i­can oil tanker to test Norse­power’s 98-foot deck­mounted spin­ning columns, which con­vert wind into thrust based on an idea first floated nearly a cen­tury ago. Maersk pledged this week to cut car­bon emis­sions to zero by 2050, which will re­quire de­vel­op­ing com­mer­cially vi­able car­bon neu­tral ves­sels by the end of next decade.

The ship­ping sec­tor’s in­ter­est in “sail tech” and other ideas took on greater ur­gency af­ter the In­ter­na­tional Mar­itime Or­ga­ni­za­tion, the U.N.’s mar­itime agency, reached an agree­ment in April to slash emis­sions by 50 per­cent by 2050.

Trans­port’s con­tri­bu­tion to earth-warm­ing emis­sions are in fo­cus as ne­go­tia­tors in Katowice, Poland, gather for U.N. talks to hash out the de­tails of the 2015 Paris ac­cord on curb­ing global warm­ing.

Ship­ping, like avi­a­tion, isn’t cov­ered by the Paris agree­ment be­cause of the dif­fi­culty at­tribut­ing their emis­sions to in­di­vid­ual na­tions, but en­vi­ron­men­tal ac­tivists say in­dus­try ef­forts are es­sen­tial to com­bat­ing cli­mate change. Ships belch out nearly 1 bil­lion tons of car­bon diox­ide a year, ac­count­ing for 2-3 per­cent of global green­house gases. The emis­sions are pro­jected to grow from 50 to 250 per­cent by 2050 if no ac­tion is taken.

No­to­ri­ously re­sis­tant to change, the mar­itime ship­ping in­dus­try is fac­ing up to the need to cut its use of cheap but dirty “bunker fuel” that pow­ers the global fleet of 50,000 ves­sels — the back­bone of world trade.

The IMO is tak­ing aim more broadly at pol­lu­tion, re­quir­ing ships to start us­ing low-sul­fur fuel in 2020 and send­ing shipown­ers scram­bling to in­vest in smoke­stack scrub­bers, which clean ex­haust, or look­ing at cleaner but pricier dis­til­late fu­els.

A Dutch group, the Good­ship­ping Pro­gram, is try­ing bio­fuel, which is made from or­ganic mat­ter. It re­fu­eled a con­tainer ves­sel in Septem­ber with 5,812 gal­lons of used cook­ing oil on be­half of five cus­tomers, in what it called a world first that cut car­bon diox­ide emis­sions by 40 tons.

In Nor­way, ef­forts to elec­trify mar­itime ves­sels are gath­er­ing pace, high­lighted by the launch of the world’s first all-elec­tric pas­sen­ger ferry, Fu­ture of the Fjords, in April.

Chem­i­cal maker Yara is mean­while plan­ning to build a bat­tery-pow­ered au­ton­o­mous con­tainer ship to ferry fer­til­izer be­tween plant and port. The Yara Birke­land, sched­uled to en­ter ser­vice in 2020, will cut emis­sions by re­plac­ing the trucks cur­rently used to do this job.

Shipown­ers have to move with the times, said Bjorn Tore Orvik, Yara’s project leader.

Build­ing a con­ven­tional fos­sil­fu­eled ves­sel “is a big­ger risk than ac­tu­ally look­ing to new tech­nolo­gies be­cause if new leg­is­la­tion sud­denly ap­pears then your ship is out of date,” said Orvik.

Bat­ter­ies are ef­fec­tive for coastal ship­ping, though not for long-dis­tance sea voy­ages, so the in­dus­try will need to con­sider other “en­ergy car­ri­ers” gen­er­ated from re­new­able power, such as hy­dro­gen or am­mo­nia, said Jan Kjetil Paulsen, an ad­viser at the Bel­lona Foun­da­tion, an en­vi­ron­men­tal non-gov­ern­ment or­ga­ni­za­tion.

Wind power is also fea­si­ble, es­pe­cially if ves­sels sail more slowly.

“That is where the big chal­lenge lies to­day,” said Paulsen.

Wind power looks to hold the most prom­ise. The tech­nol­ogy be­hind Norse­power’s ro­tor sails, also known as Flet­tner ro­tors, is based on the prin­ci­ple that air­flow speeds up on one side of a spin­ning ob­ject and slows on the other. That cre­ates a force that can be har­nessed.

Ro­tor sails can gen­er­ate thrust even from wind com­ing from the side of a ship. Ger­man engi­neer An­ton Flet­tner pi­o­neered the idea in the 1920s but the con­cept lan­guished be­cause it couldn’t com­pete with cheap oil.

On a windy day, Norse­power says ro­tors can re­place up to 50 per­cent of a ship’s en­gine propul­sion. Over­all, the com­pany says it can cut fuel con­sump­tion by 7 to 10 per­cent.

One big prob­lem with ro­tors is they get in the way of port cranes that load and un­load cargo. To get around that, U.S. startup Mag­nuss has de­vel­oped a re­tractable ver­sion. The New York­based com­pany is rais­ing $10 mil­lion to build its con­cept, which in­volves two 50-foot steel cylin­ders that re­tract be­low deck.

“It’s just a bet­ter mouse­trap,” said CEO James Rhodes, who says his tar­get mar­ket is the “Pana­max” size bulk cargo ships car­ry­ing iron ore, coal or grain.

High tech ver­sions of con­ven­tional sails are also on the draw­ing board.

Spain’s bound­4blue’s air­craft wing-like sail col­lapses like an ac­cor­dion, ac­cord­ing to a video of a scaled-down ver­sion from a re­cent trade fair. The first two will be in­stalled next year, fol­lowed by five more in 2020.

The com­pany is in talks with 15 more ship own­ers from across Europe, Ja­pan, China and the U.S. to in­stall its tech­nol­ogy, said co-founder Cristina Aleix­en­drei.

Ship own­ers are now “more des­per­ate for new tech­nol­ogy to re­duce fuel con­sump­tion,” she said


Fin­nish com­pany Norse­power in­stalled its ro­tor sail tech­nol­ogy on the Maersk Pel­i­can tanker, the first such in­stal­la­tion.

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