New Waves of Maneuvering and Transforming the Maritime Industry
Global shipping is studying new fuels and technologies to produce an energy sea change in the fight against global warming.
Professional mariners working in the global shipping industry have been on a decade-long journey to mitigate climate change. Since 2011, regulators have devised stricter ship emissions standards, but much work remains. Deploying usable and cost-effective alternative fuels and energy-efficient technologies is at the forefront of this maritime transformation.
Evolving Maritime Regulations
In 2011, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) enacted the first set of global regulations to increase ships’ energy efficiency during the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships. By 2018, IMO passed its Initial GHG Strategy. This measure aimed to reduce annual greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by at least 50% between 2008 and 2050, with the ultimate goal to cut GHG by 70% before 2050. IMO plans to revisit this objective in 2023.
Cascading from these broad regulations has been a host of energy-efficiency requirements that have significantly affected ship owners and the professional mariners who operate vessels. These involve mandates such as:
- Reporting fuel oil consumption data for ships over 5,000 gt.
- Creating an energy efficiency design index (EEDI) for new vessels and Ship Energy Efficiency Management Plans (SEEMP) for all ships.
- Imposing a 0.50% sulfur limit, which should reduce total sulfur oxide emission by over 75%.
- Developing a global regulatory framework, which is a significant step toward a low-carbon— ideally zero-carbon— shipping industry. The search for alternatives to high-carbon fossil fuels must progress on a parallel course and with greater urgency as time unfolds.
Innovative Fuels for Maritime Operations
Decarbonizing shipping is synonymous with decarbonizing shipping fuels. The former requires the latter as quickly as possible. For example, 5% of shipping fuels must be carbon-free by 2030 for full shipping decarbonization to occur by 2050.
Despite the necessity of rapid progress, structural barriers complicate the achievement of carbon-free shipping. One is that shipping falls outside the purview of the Paris Agreement (the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change). Even today, there is no agreement on zero emissions by 2050; however, if the IMO and European Union pushed for it, the entire world would have to get behind it.
Still, global shipping is moving ahead with plans to transition to alternative fuels as quickly as possible. The industry has at least four low-emission options, including liquefied natural gas (LNG), methanol, hydrogen and ammonia. Let’s take a quick look at each in turn:
- LNG– A leading option for becoming the industry’s ticket to a sustainable future. Hundreds of ships currently use it, and many new ships are in production with LNG in mind. The fuel is an intriguing possibility because it can be stored in a fraction of the space traditional fuels require in its liquid state. It also substantially reduces SOx, NOx and CO2 while generating minimal particulate pollution. However, LNG is not a perfect fuel. Since methane is a major ingredient, it, too, can contribute to global warming if it leaks out during manufacturing, fueling or other activity.
- Methanol– Companies produce methanol by processing carbon monoxide and hydrogen by reforming natural gas or gasifying coal. It can also result from the processing of various solid and liquid biomass feedstocks (residues from agriculture, forests or farming and livestock waste). Generating methane fuel from biomass would lower shipping emissions while delivering advantages such as ambient temperature storage.
- Hydrogen– This is a clean fuel because water is its only combustion byproduct. Hydrogen produces no CO2 pollution and can be used in fuel cells on smaller ships.
- Ammonia– A major shipping firm has identified ammonia as one of the top alternative fuels for the decades ahead. It’s carbon-free and available through renewable electricity. The conversion process is reasonably inexpensive, straightforward and sustainable using green hydrogen and renewable power. Ammonia has higher energy density than hydrogen and only requires refrigeration for storage. The fact that the chemical industry uses ammonia in manufacturing is a plus for the shipping business.
In short, shipping is quickly moving beyond debating alternative fuels to installing alternative-fuel power plants on actual ships. For example, a Norwegian vessel runs on lithium-ion batteries, as does a Japanese tanker. In Sweden, a pilot boat uses biomethanol, while in Belgium, a shuttle runs on hydrogen.
What’s more, the industry’s largest company will operate eight methanol-fueled container ships starting in 2024, representing a significant decrease in annual CO2 emissions. Meanwhile, the industry overall will continue the search for electric and hybrid propulsion for ships.
The Advent of Maritime Energy Efficiency Technologies (EETs)
Although fuel innovations are leading the charge to carbon-neutral shipping, other technologies are producing incremental improvements that should move the industry forward. Some of the important ones include:
- Hull optimization– Reduces resistance and friction between a ship’s hull and the water surface. This is possible through reengineering hull shape, adding smoother hull coatings and injecting more air between the hull and water to provide additional “lubrication.”
- Propellers and rudders– Recovers rotational energy from the propeller to increase energy efficiency.
- Shore to ship power– Using a shore-based energy source rather than its own while in port.
- Waste-heat recovery systems– Captures thermal energy from exhaust gas and converts it into electricity.
- Solar panels– Transforms sunlight into electricity.
Risks of Transformation of Maritime Emissions
The adoption of stricter emission standards has already revolutionized shipping. The impact will deepen as the rules tighten over time, and the application of new technologies will impose learning curves. As professional mariners and port workers adapt to new fuels, mistakes will likely occur. For example, crewmembers accustomed to dealing with a traditional power plant may make a mistake due to unfamiliarity with an alternative system; fuel spillages might become an issue.
Another problem is that shipping fleets are struggling to adapt to more stringent emissions standards. Since low- or zero-carbon propulsion technology isn’t common, the industry is relying on longer voyage durations to reduce emissions. This technique is called “slow steaming.”
The problem with slow steaming is that it produces higher operational costs in exchange for lower emissions. It requires more ships to remain at sea, more mariners staying on the job and higher insurance costs. Because trips will be longer, mariners risk hitting the wall from mental fatigue and making mistakes at sea, possibly releasing fuel into the ocean by error.
The combination of longer voyages, new propulsion technology and greater fatigue will likely expand mariner risk exposures significantly. Fortunately, insurance coverage is available to protect mariner licenses after an accident and to pay for legal fees and settlements or judgments a court could impose.
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