McKeran: Electrification driving next wave of change in marine industry


The marine ecosystem is rapidly transforming into a more efficient industry, with digitalization, low-emission fuels and electrification being at the heart of this. In this post, I want to share a more in-depth view of the opportunities that electrification presents, not only in reducing emissions but also in ensuring that the marine industry remains as profitable as possible, now and in the future.

The industrial revolution saw — and was largely driven by — one of the greatest inventions of the 20th century: the combustion engine. Until recently, it was the power and propulsion behind almost the entire marine ecosystem. However, technology advances, coupled with a more challenging economic environment and the need to reduce carbon emissions, are now changing the way we can operate as an industry. While there is still certainly a place for combustion engines, the marine ecosystem is embracing newer electrical solutions, in a bid to become cleaner, smarter and more efficient.  

Here are three key ways in which electrification can help drive the marine industry into new realms of efficiency.

Improve fuel efficiency and reduce emissions

Emissions reduction continues to be high on the agenda for the marine industry — as a whole it’s responsible for about 2.5 percent of global greenhouse emissions. Improving fuel efficiency is an obvious way to do so, and electric technology plays a leading role.

Electric propulsion systems often run on significantly less power than traditional combustion engines, which can result in fuel savings of up to 10 percent for offshore support vessels. Power take off/power take in (PTO/PTI) solutions can also greatly improve fuel efficiency by harnessing excess mechanical energy from a vessel’s propulsion shaft.

Similarly, pod propulsion systems provide a modern electric propulsion system, which can further generate fuel efficiency savings of up to 10 percent compared to traditional mechanical systems.

Developments within energy storage are also enabling marine operators to optimize energy usage. With variable operating profiles and fluctuating loads, having the ability to store excess energy on board, or connect to the national grid infrastructure to enable the rapid recharging of batteries onboard a vessel, ensures that energy usage can be fully optimized. Additional power is available onboard once back out at sea alongside the ability for engine-off operation in port.

Increase asset reliability and reduce maintenance costs

As in almost all industries, there is a need to achieve more with less for marine organizations. Smart vessel operators are realizing the value that electrical solutions bring in terms of increasing asset reliability and vessel longevity to this end.

Because electrical systems have fewer moving parts, they produce less friction and therefore less heat than combustion engines. This means there is less of a chance for mechanical issues to occur; and when they do, resolving the issue is often much easier. This all makes for increased reliability and therefore, reduced maintenance costs. Induction-based propulsion motor technology has one of the lowest maintenance costs compared to alternative solutions, reducing opex for fleet operators.

Electrical propulsion systems also enable ship operators to carry out fast and efficient upgrades, greatly contributing to overall vessel longevity. For example, the modular design in electrical propulsion systems means that individual parts such as the drive, motor, generator or shaft line can be replaced or upgraded without having to remove the entire system. That means less maintenance costs and time spent in dry dock.

Improve flexibility in vessel layout and performance

A ship is at its most profitable while at sea carrying maximum cargo or passengers or carrying out operations. Thanks to a smaller footprint and flexibility in installation of machinery compared to combustion engines, electric propulsion systems can save up to 5 percent for potential cargo space, allowing shipowners to make better, more profitable use of vessel space.

In fact, the flexibility in vessel layout is unlocking new opportunities to improve overall vessel efficiency from the outset. Smart software can optimize vessel design by providing real-time comparisons of performance and estimated annual operational expenditures based on different electrical configurations. In a recent design investigation in GE’s SeaLab, careful system design helped reduce the installed power requirement by up to 25 percent compared to the baseline design, meaning the vessel requires fewer or smaller engines, which can be translated into capex savings, reduced fuel costs and increased payload within the hull.

Electrical propulsion systems can also enhance performance while ensuring much smoother and quieter operations. These systems have been selected specifically to meet the demanding and varied operational requirements of navy ships, but in particular the equipment will meet a tough shock rating requirement and provide low noise performance, both of which are critical in defense operations.   

The average ship’s appetite for power has also increased dramatically due to the evolution of increasingly complex, but essential, smart technology and onboard systems. Unlike traditional mechanical solutions, electrical solutions are now enabling shipowners to create their own microgrids onboard to meet a vessel’s total power needs and enhance overall performance. Whether through power generation technology, intelligent power management and distribution or remote power control, electrification is enabling tremendous savings associated with offshore energy projects, storage and reuse of power, as well as the production of additional power to support smarter systems onboard a ship.

The need to improve efficiency, reduce operational expenditures and seize revenue-adding opportunities is only going to increase for the foreseeable future. Forward-thinking marine organizations will be already exploring the exciting technology now as a way to not only meet, but beat these evolving challenges. The marine industry is in the middle of the most exciting period of transformation since the industrial era, and electrification is at its heart.  

Andy McKeran is general manager for GE’s Marine Solutions.

By Professional Mariner Staff