The shipping industry is enormous, moving roughly 80% of the world’s trade in physical goods, making it a major contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions. Carrying billions of dollars of goods each year across every ocean on the planet, shipping companies are now looking for innovative solutions to reduce their carbon footprint, looking towards options like electric power.
Brian Ladin of Dallas, Texas, is the CEO of Delos Shipping and is recognized internationally for completing several major transactions and acquisitions. He provides an explanation of initiatives and examples of ships moving towards electric power.
Almost all ships run predominantly on heavy fuel oil, or bunker oil. When this type of fuel is burned, it emits sulfur and particulate matter that can cause respiratory issues. Brian Ladin explains that bunker oil also emits greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide and methane, trapping heat in the atmosphere — making it a major contributor to global warming. As one shipping industry professional at Flexport puts it, if shipping was a country, it would be the sixth-largest polluter in the world. In April 2018, the International Maritime Organization adopted an initial strategy on the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions from ships, setting out a vision to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from international shipping and phase them out. One solution presented by the industry is to find electric solutions.
Brian Ladin points out that ships have, of course, been driven by the wind for thousands of years. Since the start of the 19th century; however, this task has been predominantly taken over by engines. But for several years now, many ships have been partly electrified, with 80 percent of oceangoing ships now using a diesel-electric transmission system. One of the key advantages is that it saves between five and 20 percent of fuel. Aside from this minor shift towards energy efficiency, there are a couple of key international examples of how this is being employed on a global scale.
Between the ports of Antwerp, Amsterdam, and Rotterdam are the world’s first 100-percent electric barges, nicknamed the “Tesla Ships”. These emissions-free boats are the latest in a fleet of new electric and hybrid vessels in Europe. The company behind the vessels is called Port Liner, a Dutch company. Brian Ladin explains that these five barges can carry up to 24 containers each and are powered by batteries charged with carbon-free energy. The company explains that on short journeys, the batteries don’t tend to add additional weight compared to traditional fossil fuel powered ships. Another key example of electric power innovation comes from China.
An all-electric cargo ship with a massive MWh battery pack was launched in China in 2017. The ship is 70.5 meters long, 13.9 meters wide, 4.5 meters deep, and has a total cargo carrying capacity of 2,000 tons. This all-electric cargo ship is equipped with two 160kW electric propellers and a mix of supercapacitors and lithium batteries for a total energy capacity of 2.4 MWh. The ship has a total range of roughly 80 kilometers on a single charge. Of course, this means that it is designed for short distances and unfortunately, was configured to carry coal down the Pearl River in Guangdong Province. However, taking only two hours to charge in both shipyards — the time it takes to offload and load — represents a major leap in this type of technology.
Final Thoughts from Brian Laden
Despite these advances in technology, we still have a long way to go. Unfortunately, long-haul, ocean-going vessels currently do not have the option of docking regularly to plug in small batteries, which means they are unlikely to become electrified in the near future. To have an electric ship with which its batteries and motors weigh no more than the fuel and the diesel engine in today’s large container vessels, we would need batteries with an energy density more than 10 times as high as today’s best Li-ion units. To give you some context: in the past 70 years, the energy density of the best commercial batteries hasn’t even quadrupled.
However, Brian Ladin remains optimistic. Given the IMO’s push for cleaner energy sources by 2050, this may drive innovation and allow the industry to reach their goals of 50% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.