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Are batteries a viable option for shipping?

It is increasingly commonplace to see electrified transport onshore in many forms including cars, buses, and trains. Now we are seeing attempts to electrify shipping in the fight against climate change.

However, efforts by innovators to electrify shipping as an alternative energy source to heavy fuel oil for power ships engines has only just begun. In a few months, for instance, we will see the first 100 percent electric barges operating in the inland waters serving the European ports of Antwerp, Amsterdam, and Rotterdam. These e-barges are built by Port Liner, the Dutch inland waterway barge operator and it claims that this could help clean up shipping’s environmental impact.

Ton van Meegen, chief executive of Port Liner said, “It makes little sense for us to build new ships with diesel engines. Our vessels will be used for decades, and electric motors are clearly where the industry is headed.” The first phase of this  €107m project is to build 15 e-barges. The first six barges should make their maiden voyages along the Wilhelmina canal in the Netherlands, this autumn. The Port Liner e-barges will use batteries with electricity purchased from renewable power suppliers.

Each e-barge will be able to carry up 24 containers each. Also, Port-Liner claims that the vessels will be able to run for 34 hours between charges and estimates that the first six will mitigate the need for 23,000 trucks within their first year of operation.

In addition, although the current solution being used on the PortLiner barges is an all-electric battery solution, the company has factored in the introduction’s possibility of using hydrogen as soon as it becomes economically viable. In fact, PortLiner has already started research into the application of a commercially viable integrated battery/hydrogen solution. Depending on the market segment and area of operation, there are likely to be new market opportunities to exploit for a full battery-electric and battery/hydrogen applications. The flexibility of PortLiner’s “E-Power box” concept allows for tailor-made solutions.

Cutting air pollution

Today, it is common practice for ships to us, especially in international waters to make use of cheap and heavy oil bunker fuel. As a result, the emissions leaving a ship’s engines contain high levels of nitrogen and sulphur oxides, which are linked to asthma, lung cancer and heart disease.

According to Sönke Diesener transportation policy expert at Germany’s Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union (NABU) heavy fuel oil burns 100 times dirtier than marine diesel – and an incredible 3,500 times dirtier than regular car diesel.

Regulatory response

According to the EU, around 3 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions come from the shipping sector. It has been forecast that by 2050 shipping could produce 17% of global emissions, due to ongoing growth in the industry. As part of industry policy makers and regulators, the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) have introduced an environmental measure to cut air pollution and carbon dioxide, or CO2.

This latest IMO environmental measure is a rule limiting the amount of sulphur in shipping fuels to 0.5 percent, down from the current 3.5 percent, starting in 2020.

According to research published in the science journal Nature in February 2018, it found that this new measure should help reduce deaths related to shipping pollution by a third, and ship-related childhood asthma cases by more than half. The latter stands at around 14 million cases annually.

This IMO environmental measure on CO2 emission reductions is in line with the Paris Accords targets and is supported by the industry body the International Chamber of Shipping.

Is e-shipping a viable option?

Certainly, the introduction worldwide of ever tougher environmental regulations is encouraging the shipping industry to look for cleaner low carbon fuel sources such as batteries. In addition, advances in battery technology mean that they are much more productive and cheaper than before.

Lucy Gilliam — an expert on aviation and shipping at Brussels-based nongovernmental organisation Transport and Environment has said, “Around Europe, there is a wave of recent developments changing the (shipping) sector at a fast pace. We need to bust the myth that batteries are too heavy or don’t have enough capacity to go far. In recent years, this technology has changed significantly.”

For short distance routes, batteries don’t add additional weight compared to traditional fossil fuel-powered ships. For instance, on the 52 mile Dover to Calais car ferry route, a battery would make up around 1 percent of the weight of the ship.

In addition, since 2015 the world’s first battery-driven 80-meter catamaran ferry, the MS Ampere, operates a passenger ferry route crossing the Sognefjord, which is the longest fjord in Norway. This ferry was built at the Fjellstrand yard, and is operated by Norled. And elsewhere in Scandinavia ferry operator Scandlines also runs battery-diesel hybrids across the Baltic Sea between Germany, Denmark, and Sweden. “This allows our ferries to adjust its fuel consumption to the workload – which results in a 15 percent reduction of CO2 emissions,” says Anette Ustrup Svendsen, Head of Corporate Communications at Scandlines. “Our long-term goal is zero-emissions.”

However, for ocean-going routes, such as Southampton to Singapore, current batteries do not have the capacity on one charge to complete such a journey. Instead, such e-ships would have to stop at several places on route to recharge.

ICS secretary general Peter Hinchliffe has said, “With current limitations on technology, it seems that electrification will be limited to small craft undertaking short, ferry-type voyages.”

One thing is clear is that an increasing number of vessels on short distance routes will make use of battery power soon. However, for longer routes, the most feasible future alternatives in terms of technology and economics, are LNG (for larger ships), Hybrid (diesel-electrical), Fuel-optimised engines with end-of-pipe treatment and Euro VI engines.

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