Achieving the International Maritime Organization (IMO) goal of reducing carbon emissions in maritime shipping by at least half by 2050 will require a fundamental shift toward zero-carbon energy sources such as liquefied natural gas (LNG), electric power and ammonia. It also will require a substantial investment: between $1 trillion and $1.4 trillion over the next 20 years, according to analysis by London-based University Maritime Advisory Services and the Energy Transitions Commission.
As is often the case with maritime innovation, Europe is leading the way on decarbonization. Norway has been electrifying its coastal fleet — including launching an all-electric ferry in 2015 — and is now turning its attention to the more daunting carbon challenges of containerships, freighters, tankers and cruise ships on the high seas.
Norway-based NCE Maritime CleanTech is leading the ShipFC project anticipated to launch the world’s first emission-free supply vessel by 2024, Eidesvik’s 17-year-old offshore supply vessel Viking Energy, which is being retrofit with an ammonia-powered fuel cell with an output of 2 megawatts.
“The ammonia in this project will be produced by Yara from renewable sources — desalinated water, air, renewable electricity — using proven technologies. This will result in a carbon-neutral fuel,” said Hege Okland, chief executive officer of NCE Maritime CleanTech. “Using conventional fossil fuels and (energy savings) alone will not enable the maritime industry to fully eliminate harmful emissions, which is the ultimate goal set up by IMO regarding greenhouse gas emissions. Ammonia is considered a balanced solution in terms of volumetric energy density and renewable synthetic production cost compared to other renewable fuels.”
In January, the European Union awarded 10 million euros, or the equivalent of $11 million, to the ShipFC project helmed by a consortium of 14 companies and institutions coordinated by CleanTech.
The need for flexibility will be paramount as the industry weighs options for different shipping sectors. Joshua Berger, maritime sector leader for Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee, said there will be a different solution for getting a containership across the Pacific Ocean than getting a ferry across Puget Sound.
“We need to determine the right fuels for containerships as opposed to ferries, workboats and passenger ships,” Berger said. “If we’re going to meet the IMO’s goal by 2050 and a ship is operational for 25 years, we really only have seven or eight years to determine the fuel choice for that, which is why we need to invest in research and development now.”
Modeled after and in partnership with the ShipFC cluster organization in Norway, Washington Maritime Blue was founded in January 2019 to accelerate innovations for the blue economy in the Pacific Northwest. Ongoing projects include converting the 22-vessel Washington State Ferries (WSF) fleet to electric propulsion. Ridership in the WSF system is 24 million passengers a year and growing, and by 2023 the state is anticipated to have the largest all-electric car ferry in the world.
“In Washington, like in Norway, we have everything needed to help decarbonize the shipping industry,” Berger said. “Washington state has very clean and very cheap electricity. We have all the shipbuilding capabilities and all the design and supply chain needs. We have extensive research and development, not only in the maritime industries but in digital and technology sectors, and carbon-fiber technologies and synergies with the aerospace industry.”
Washington Maritime Blue is poised to be the North American leader in maritime electrification.
“We’ve been pushing hard to use our region as a model for federal government action and a framework for how the United States engages in decarbonizing the shipping industry,” Berger said. “We have a ways to go to see the impact they’re having in Scandinavia. Right now, Europe and Asia are leading. But we’re building for the future — for zero emissions and clean energy — and we’re seeing the global supply chain come here to be part of it. And we’re seeing the same desire from California and partners in New England in planning ahead for a clean energy future.”
Georgios Plevrakis, global sustainability director for the American Bureau of Shipping (ABS), sees Scandinavia, the Pacific Northwest and the Great Lakes — regions where most commercial voyages are short — as breeding grounds for alternative fuels. But for owners of international trading ships facing complex investment decisions about new vessels, he said, most practical carbon-neutral and zero-carbon solutions remain in development.
“Ammonia-fueled engines are not currently available and would require another three to four years for the first one to be delivered,” Plevrakis said, adding that there are safety considerations with ammonia, a toxic substance, that need to be addressed. “Another problem with ammonia for long-haul operations is that it has a small energy content; that is, ammonia takes up a lot of space on a vessel.”
As shipowners invest today without knowing what fuels will make the most sense 20 or 30 years from now, ABS helps them identify the right strategy for each ship, with safety always in mind. One way that owners can “future-proof” their investment, Plevrakis said, is to introduce electrical components that make the entire design more efficient and — with the generation of onboard electricity — become fuel-agnostic.
“In doing so,” he said, “owners would take another small step toward minimizing the carbon footprint of their fleet."