Maritime's Push Toward "Net Zero Carbon"

Maritime Activity Reports, Inc.

October 27, 2018

IMO’s 2050 deadline to reduce GHG emissions 50% from 2008 levels has set off a gold rush to develop Zero Emissions Solutions

Climate change is the biggest issue facing [all aspects of] the maritime industry, said Kitak Lim, IMO secretary general, in an interview earlier this year with Maritime Reporter & Engineering News. He predicted that shipping could experience as much change in the next 10 to 20 years as it has in the last 100 years, as the industry races to meet a number of challenges, among them sustainability.

According to the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) the industry is responding, reducing its total CO2 emissions by more than 10% between 2007 and 2012, and boasting a 20% reduction in CO2 per tonne/km compared to 2005 levels. It also quotes numbers from the International Council on Clean Transportation, which says international shipping’s emissions had already dropped 8% between 2008 – the industry peak – and 2015. The International Transport Forum (ITF), meanwhile, claims it is possible to virtually decarbonize shipping by 2035, well ahead of IMO schedule, if the right policies, technologies and incentives are put into place “now.”  In addition to the ICS and the OTF, there is a substantial pool of industry groups – including shippers, ship owners and shipbuilders, ports, etc. – that already have organizations in place hard at work addressing pathways to emissions reduction, including the development of radical new ship designs. The industry has not been sitting idly by wallowing in its fumes.  

Still, leaving nothing to chance or shipping’s best intentions, in April, IMO Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC) members agreed to lay down a formal, multi-phased requirement to move to a 50% cut in GHG emissions by 2050, a mandate that builds on three earlier regulations – one calling for the implementation of a global carbon emissions data collecting and reporting system by 2019, one setting a cap on sulphur content in marine fuels at 0.5% by 2020, and another, using the Energy Efficiency Design Index, to regulate a three-phased increase in new ship efficiency, of 10% by 2020, 20% by 2025, and 30% by 2030. The IMO also called for a least a 40% reduction in carbon emissions by 2030, and 70% by 2050.

Post 2050, the plan is to reach zero GHG emissions as soon as possible during the second half of this century.
By 2023, the group hopes to adopt a more detailed, revised strategy, and have ironed out sticky issues such as helping less developed countries bear the financial load of cutting emissions.
Given those drivers, DNV GL’s second “Energy Transition Outlook” report (2018) predicts that carbon-neutral fuels will surpass the use of diesel fuels by 2050, primarily due to alternative fuels, logistics improvements, speed reductions, and the “full impact of gradually improving the energy efficiency of new ships.”

Decarbonization is officially HUGE.
The IMO’s slate of shipping efficiency and emissions reduction deadlines have laid down the gauntlet, lit the torch, and made climate change real for the industry. But anyone looking for the holy grail of that one solution that walks on water as the one-size-fits-all, emissions-mitigating answer can stop now. There isn’t going to be one solution, but many. And one of the inherent drawbacks of much of that many is that they are today, and will likely be, less energy dense than diesel, which means whatever new fuels and energy-storing solutions win the day, vessels are going to need to consume and store a lot more fuel than they do currently. The ripple effect of that will be, well, huge.  

The IMO’s tiered countdown to “zero” guarantees that virtually every corner of the marine and energy sectors will be singularly focused on fueling efficiency and eradicating emissions and other forms of entry for pollution for at least the next 30 years.  Energy generators, sources and storage; ship design; engine, boiler and other propulsion equipment; lubricants; coatings; sealants – every part and parcel of every vessel type is going to be turned inside out, upside down, redesigned, reformulated, re-piped and re-routed – even relocated – as naval architects and engineers, ship owners and operators, investors and marine financiers, researchers and marine environmental organizations of every permutation put their heads together to puzzle out the best routes to net zero Zen. Operational strategies are also going under the microscope.

And not a moment too soon for climate warriors disappointed that the IMO did not go further and mandate emission cuts of 70% by 2050 to meet the 2015 Paris Agreement to keep global temperature increases under 2 C, and as close as possible to 1.5 degrees. They are deeply worried about the extent to which a hotter planet is melting ice caps, heating up and acidifying the seas and outrunning the ocean’s natural ability to cope with carbon sinks. And with good reason.

Sure, IMO member counties could have acted sooner, but “the targets are a huge step for the industry and should be celebrated as a big step in the right direction,” says Ned Harvey, a managing director for the Rocky Mountain Institute/Carbon War Room, a non-profit that works with vendors and industry to tackle environmental issues

Still the cheapest and most environmentally friendly of all transport modes, shipping nonetheless produces an estimated 2.4% of emissions. It doesn’t sound like much, but that’s roughly equal to the output of Germany, the sixth largest emitter of carbon. Shipping as a whole is a lot cleaner than other transport sources of carbon emissions, i.e. planes, trains and automobiles. Indeed, driven by the trend toward megaships carrying as many as 20,000 containers, shipping has never been more cost-efficient and more environmentally friendly. Bigger, newer, more modern vessels, in some cases running on new forms of fuel and propulsion, means fewer older, smaller ships carrying the same number of TEUs among them, operating primarily on bunker, together producing considerably more emissions.  

But ships are basically mobile power plants. “It’s not that ships are particularly dirty, it’s just that there are an awful lot of them,” says Christopher Barry, an engineering consultant and chair of both SNAME’s Small Craft Technical and Research Committee, and its Ocean Renewable Energy Technical and Research Panel, and collectively, they produce a lot of emission. And there are going to be even more plying global trade routes despite the advent of those super-sized container ships. The last 25 years have seen a four-times increase in the number of vessels transiting 24/7, oceans the world over, carrying 90% or more of the world’s commerce – while mostly burning bunker fuel. In the United States at least, the transportation sector surpassed energy in the last couple of years to become the number-one emitter of greenhouse gases. Shipping demand keeps climbing and the IMO believes the sector’s emissions could balloon to as high as 17% of global carbon emissions by 2050, if a sea change in fueling does not take place.

It’s very important that the industry makes those changes, agrees Rick Ashcroft, functional vice president technology and Chair of the Technology & Research Steering Committee at the Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers (SNAME). “There are things you have to do because at some level you worry about the environment.”
It’s been slow going Harvey says, but the issues of “low cost, low carbon – all that stuff is coming together - as increasingly ship owners try to balance all this.”

Meanwhile, there are several things to keep in mind about vessels: each represents a collection of compromises, says Ashcroft, and no two are the same. Built to operate for decades, they can easily outlive the obsolescence of their chosen fueling, power and propulsion systems and technologies, and face enormous challenges in accommodating a retrofit.  
Every newbuild design, vessel retrofit, equipment change or placement decision is influenced not only by the regulation driving the change, of course, but more importantly, by a ship’s balance, draft, dimensions, area of operation and other requirements for safety and crew well being.

Access is also key. Breaking through the ship’s deck and removing or rerouting flooring, piping, wiring, support beams etc. isn’t always feasible when considering engine replacement or a change in fuel source. Re-situating differently designed or sized tanks to accommodate storage of new fuel types can compromise container space, and impact safety or structural integrity.
Some ships can’t be rehabbed by any means. Do you scrap them regardless of age or seek to offset their carbon footprint by buying carbon tax credits? (Whether that approach is to be encouraged is the subject of much debate.)
And when ordering a class of ships that will be delivered 1-2 vessels per year over a decade or more, what happens if mid order fulfillment new regulations force changes in the engine or choice in fuels or propulsion or storage?  

It’s a puzzle that SNAME’s Ashcroft says often involves a multi-year process from the time an owner approaches a shipyard with its specifications to when it takes possession of the new or retrofitted vessel.  “Ships are not designed by naval architects; virtually every naval discipline is involved in the process. Our job is to make sure it all goes together,” says Ashcroft. Owners start the process by sorting through a myriad of vastly different options for lowering emissions - some current, others pending, and, hopes the industry at all levels, more to be discovered in the future.
In the meantime, pressure is building not just from IMO and nation state regulations – the U.S. and China already require adherence to the 0.5 sulphur cap – but from the industry’s clients. Shippers that want to lessen their own carbon footprint are taking a hard look at freight logistics. There are ways to check up on the energy profile of ocean-going partners. One example is an algorithm created by University College London’s Energy Institute, which uses AIS satellite data to track individual ship locations and movements over time and is able to estimate their operational energy efficiency and carbon emissions.

The Rocky Mountain Institute/Carbon War Room teamed with Rightship to launch the BetterFleet tool on, which uses that algorithm to power a free tool that enables shippers, owners and investors to track and compare emissions and energy efficiency rankings of some 76,000 individual vessels. RMI hopes to expand the tool to track entire fleets.

But that expansion needs funding, and preferably support from the shipping industry, which Harvey notes, is one of the least transparent sectors out there. “We will happily update it if they shared data, but no one has done that.”

Some companies are taking a leading position, like shipper Cargill and freighter Maersk, in working to cut emissions. In the case of Maersk and others, Harvey says it’s done mostly from a purely competitive point of view, and to that end they consider their strategies proprietary. After all, lower emissions could translate into more business as clients/shippers concerned about climate change try to mitigate their own impact.  

Other than a reduction in volume and freight, the pathway to decarbonization in shipping requires a few “simple” steps, according to Harvey: 1) buy efficient ships and retrofit them to maximize efficiency whenever practical; 2) slow down and make sure ship owners and crew are properly incentivized to maximize operational efficiency; 3) use wind assist whenever possible to reduce demand for propulsion power; and 4) switch to low carbon fuels.

Implementation “will require significant coordination up and down the value chain and a collaborative effort to reduce costs of efficiency technologies and alternate fuels,’’ Harvey adds.
In the short-term, most owners “are going to go with whatever is least invasive,” says SNAME’s Ashcroft.  So it’s not surprising that on the carbon side, slow steaming and LNG are the most popular approaches du jour.

Slow steaming is another thing that is huge, says Harvey. It does work – it uses less fuel and cuts emissions. LNG, which contains no sulphur, virtually no particulate matter and up to 90% fewer nitrogen oxides as bunker, can run on most current engines, and there are hybrid options. “Most ships have the stability to handle the weight of Type C LNG tanks. You aren’t changing the engine. Diesel engines can run on LNG. You have to change the fuel system and might have to change out a lot of machinery. It’s certainly less expensive than buying new engines,” says Ashcroft.  A lot of new construction is dual-fuel, LNG ready. Every day brings more announcements about more orders for LNG vessels, which can be as much 25% more expensive than conventional.
But each approach has its own issues.

Just because companies claim to be slow steaming, doesn’t mean they are. “While talked about a lot, there isn’t much reason to believe that slow steaming is as common as is claimed,” says Harvey, adding that the practice is hard to track and enforce. “There is very little transparency in the industry and few real incentives for the crew to slow down. It’s more likely that the incentives promote faster speeds,” he says, adding that speed is driven by economics, not corporate social responsibility.
Ashcroft points out that hulls are optimized for specific speeds, and not for slow speeds, which could minimize any benefits from slow steaming attempts.

Less energy-dense LNG requires refrigeration (which requires its own energy), lots of storage in new types of tanks, different tank placement etc., all of which can pull the ship off center and cut into container space if not carefully positioned. “If you have to maintain a specific speed to remain competitive, can you afford a 10% reduction in power?,” posits Barry. “Nothing is free; everything is a tradeoff in the engineering world. There are all these things you have to think of.”’

Refueling infrastructure is a significant barrier to LNG, says SNAME’s Barry. Depending on where a vessel’s schedule take it, it could be difficult to find a refueling source, which means a vessel might need to make room on board to carry enough fuel to support a roundtrip. (Actually, refueling and recharging are issues for multiple low- or zero emission fuel sources.)

Hybrid solutions that use LNG and diesel create another worry for owners and operators who have expressed concern about safety issues and engine failures, should fuels be mixed or crews not receive training for LNG. “There have been incidents during switchover when ships have lost power, but they do restart,” agrees Ashcroft.
One significant drawback to LNG is an emission of a different kind that must be contained – poisonous methane gas - which is said to be even more detrimental to the environment than carbon. It can be captured and even recycled as a form of energy, but it’s complicated, costly and still being looked at.

“LNG can provide marginal improvements on carbon as compared to HFO, but those improvements are reduced dramatically when accounting for the impact of upstream methane emissions,” says Harvey, adding that methane emissions are significantly worse for the climate than burning diesel, HFO or coal. He thinks investors, owners and operators need to be concerned about making big financial commitments to LNG and its bunkering infrastructure. For one, associated policy changes “could easily strand all that investment.”  And advances in hydrogen fuels could make it competitive with LNG long before LNG investments are paid off.

Another option in play today are “scrubbers,” which remove pollutants from smokestacks. In recent weeks, the number of companies planning to install scrubbers has picked up noticeably. But industry opinion on the technology, which is expensive, is decidedly mixed. SOx scrubbers may be an acceptable short-term solution, but for the longer haul, low-emission fuels are a “more holistic solution,” says Harvey.

As for CO2 scrubbers, ones that dump the CO2 into the ocean simply move the problem from one environment to another and are not an acceptable solution, according to Harvey. Scrubber systems that capture CO2 chemically for disposal on land could be viable, he says, except that they are “likely not scaleable or cost-effective compared to alternatives.”

Separately, debate continues apace over the alternative to installing SOx scrubbers - low sulphur bunker – and whether there will be sufficient supplies, and just how considerably much more expensive it will be.

Owners may complain, but if it’s an environmental regulation, it’s not a question of affordability in meeting it, says Ashcroft. “When auto emissions were first put into place, the auto guys said they couldn’t do it. But they have met or exceeded those standards. If there is a rule out there that needs to be done, the shipping industry will require some way of meeting it even if we may not understand [what it will be] today,” says Ashcroft. “It’s all part of the cost of doing business. Markets will balance.” A lot of regulation results in passing increased costs to consumers, he added. This is exactly what Maersk intends to do, starting in 2020 (see related story).

One technology the industry is betting will be huge down the road, is batteries. Needed to store wind and solar energy and to store and power electricity, they are heavy and don’t currently provide enough power in a small enough package to be terribly useful beyond short-sea shipping. But all-electric and hybrid propulsion-powered ferry fleets are coming online, providing the market incentive needed to push further development of more powerful, affordable batteries.

Fully battery-operated larger vessels will require “radical adjustments to how ships are operated and careful route management,” warns the ICS in its “Shaping the Future of Shipping” white paper. It says the space required by the extremely large batteries needed as a primary power source could be offset by the elimination of fuel tanks and conventional engine machinery. Also needed, it says, is the development of a global recharging infrastructure with access to electricity from renewable sources. So while advances are creating a lot of excitement, the technology just isn’t there yet.

True, says Harvey, who adds that costs are coming down as fast as the technology is changing. He thinks within the early years of the next decade, batteries could be a really good solution. “You might be able to run a ship around the world, charging using wind or small solar on a ship or small store of hydrogen. Now you have an almost fully renewable ship.”

There are other carbon-emission-free alternatives, one almost nostalgic, one seemingly boundless in supply, a couple extremely toxic. All are either still somewhat under development or searching for a cost-effective approach. Beyond those are options are those mostly still in the research and development stage, including hydrogen, ammonia, and fuel cells. And then there is the scary one - nuclear power.

Wind and solar are supplementary energy sources, and require sufficient battery storage and a primary power source.

Wind – 

talk about back to the future. Who’d have thought shipping would go back to its roots to harness wind power, using fabric and rotor sails (such as on the LNG vessel Grace), as well as kites? Still, wind power and other technologies that contribute to increased efficiency of conventional systems are unsuitable as the only propulsion option – albeit there is the potential for the use of wind to reduce the size and therefore the cost of the additional propulsion system.

Solar – 

as long as the sun is shining and you’ve got sufficient storage for when it isn’t, solar seems like a no-brainer for vessels that spend countless hours under the hot sun. But the amount of power generated per panel would call for huge numbers of panels, the placement of which would need to take into account their weight, the presence of tugs, how you’d dock the ship and even safety issues, says Ashcroft. Beyond very small craft, solar power today only can augment other power sources. There are vessels operating today on nuclear power. Modern nukes are expensive but also clean, “barring an accident,” and fueled for 50 years, making cores “good for the life of the ship,” says SNAME’s Barry.

But the downsides are downright dangerous – security and safety are huge. Operators would have to protect the material in the core, protect the technology from falling into unsavory hands, and find a way to dispose of nuclear waste. It’s too much for some ports, which refuse entry to nuclear vessels. If the ship is scrapped, how is the waste handled? You now have specialist scrapping requirements.

Those interested in the nuclear option anyway can buy a small, modular nuclear reactor – basically a nuke in a box. It contains so many kW hours, and when exhausted, the client has to send the box back to be recycled and refueled, says Barry.

Carbon-free ammonia comes with the same safety restrictions as propane, but has more energy than LNG and is not as hard to deal with from a pressure standpoint, and can run on big diesel engines. It’s also extremely toxic. “People have figured out how to  make ammonia out of air and water – but is there enough renewable energy available to fuel a merchant fleet?, asks Barry.  
Electricity is already successfully in use with ferries and some short-sea operations with fixed travel routes. But the sheer weight and space taken up by the batteries needed would make them untenable for longer voyages until there are breakthroughs in lithium-ion batteries.

Harvey predicts hydrogen and hydrogen fuels will be online by 2030. Hydrogen can take the form of a liquid, gas or fuel cell, and can be also be created from fossil fuels. It has a low energy density, can corrode metals and needs serious cryogenics. According to the ICS, its main challenges as a marine fuel are the cost of production, transport and storage – a by-now familiar refrain with most new marine fuel prospects.  
Ideally renewable, and still experimental for shipping, biofuels are problematic because they take land to grow (though specially engineered crops such as algae could change that), and could compete with food crops. There is one vessel currently sailing on vegetable oil, according to The GoodShipping Program, the container vessel Samskip Endeavour, which swapped out its usual combination of fossil fuels for treated cooking oil.

Some owners may decide they either can’t physically make the changes or cannot remain competitive if they bring their vessel into compliance. For these owners, there is another option – offsetting their carbon footprint by either paying a carbon tax based on a variety of equations including emissions per tonne, or paying a fee to remove an equivalent amount elsewhere. Kind of like a company offsetting their footprint by planting a forest of trees.

Still other owners may determine that some vessels are too expensive to rehab, or perhaps can’t be rehabbed. Maybe there isn’t enough room under the hood, so to speak, to accommodate the design/structure changes required to move to different energy sources. According to SNAME’s Ashcroft, we are already seeing an uptick. “A lot of relatively new ships have gone to the scrap yard in the last few years.”

The ripple effect here goes beyond a business boom for scrappers. Different fuel sources will require new disposal regulations and better training of the manual labor force currently picking apart the carcasses of dead ships.
Barry thinks that trend will feed into an uptick in new builds, noting some owners may be encouraged to scrap to get extra money to use to justify building a new vessel. But not just conventional builds. New fuel sources and emission-eliminating technologies and their operational and design requirements are spurring development of radically new ship designs, just as the 2017 Tripartite Forum on shipbuilding and design had called for. It said then that there was an urgent need to design future ships differently and to be more technologically innovative to achieve CO2 reduction goals. 

One example, the Aquarius Ecoship, is a cargo ship devised by Eco Marine Power of Japan, which runs on a combination of wind and solar power supplemented by conventional fuels. That mix reportedly can produce up to a 40% reduction in emissions. The industry will be closely watching this and another pioneering vessels from Japanese shipping line NYK, whose Eco Ship 2030 will use LNG to make hydrogen to run fuel cells. Backed up by solar panels covering the entire ship and 40,000 square feet of sails to catch the wind, the combination could cut emissions by 70%. Possibly by 2025, shippers Wallenius Wilhelmsen hope to launch the E/S Orcelle, which will be powered by electricity, half coming directly from wind, solar and wave energy, and the other half from converting some of that energy into hydrogen to power fuel cells.

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