Solar Sails Unfurl in Bid to Make Shipping Green: Q&A

By Iain Wilson, BloombergNEF. This article first appeared on the Bloomberg Terminal. 

Arrays of solar sails affixed to the ships that carry global trade over the world’s oceans could be one of the answers to making the shipping industry cleaner and greener, according to Greg Atkinson, founder and chief technology officer of Eco Marine Power Co.

Eco Marine is a small startup headquartered in Fukuoka, Japan. The company and its partners are working to develop products to help the shipping industry cut emissions, including a rigid sail called EnergySail that is able to be fitted with solar modules to tap into the power of both the wind and sun. The company is also working with a battery manufacturer on a system to introduce more energy storage to ships.

“The EnergySail is a platform and it’s either a wind platform or a solar platform or both,’’ Atkinson told BloombergNEF in an interview. “The vision is that these would be used as an array. There’d be maybe a dozen mounted on a ship and together they’re going to provide solar and wind power and help move the ship forward.’’

Eco Marine is currently in talks with several shipowners to install its sails next year. In late 2018, the company installed a battery pack manufactured by Furukawa Battery Co. specifically for the marine environment on MV Panamana, a large general cargo ship owned by Masterbulk Pte., a Singapore-based shipping company.

Eco Marine’s focus on green shipping comes as the global industry faces heightened scrutiny over its fuel usage and emissions. Starting in January, the International Maritime Organization will begin requiring that the marine sector cut sulfur emissions by more than 80 percent by switching to lower-sulphur fuels. The IMO will impose even tougher rules in 2050 by requiring that ships cut carbon dioxide emissions by at least half.

According to a recent report from BNEF, shipping is responsible for 2% of global carbon emissions and 13% of sulfur emissions, mostly because of the dirty bunker fuel it uses. Just four of the world’s top 10 shippers have carbon emission targets, and while some progress is being made, much must still be done to improve the industry’s green credentials, according to BNEF.
“Converting the world’s shipping industry to run on renewable energy remains a longer-term goal that requires more sophisticated battery technology and a new regulatory framework,’’ BNEF analyst Helen Dewhurst said. “Ultimately, for most shipping companies, replacing the entire fleet with long-term solutions will take years.’’

Eco Marine’s Atkinson spoke recently with BNEF from the company’s test center in Onomichi, a port city in the southwest of Japan’s main island of Honshu. The interview follows:

Q: What is the scope of the problem in terms of the environmental challenge facing the shipping industry?

A: The shipping industry is facing the known environmental issues of pollution and they’re also facing the regulatory side. They’ve known the impact of emissions on the environment for a while. They now also have these regulations that are being pushed on them, especially with low-sulfur fuel. They’re also struggling with the downturn in the shipping market. They don’t have a lot of money to invest in technologies to reduce emissions but they know they have to do it. This is why simple options are being leaped upon, with scrubbers being one. So instead of going to a cleaner fuel or investing in green technologies, they’ve invested in scrubbers, which basically take the higher sulfur fuel and clean the exhaust.

Q: How receptive is the shipping industry to this new environment?

A: It ranges from receptive to hostile. A lot of the shipowners weren’t very happy about the low-sulfur regulation. It’s probably not a perfect implementation because there’s a lot of discussion about fuel availability etc. A lot of them are struggling and they see this as another regulation that’s going to put more costs on them. On the other side, you have some of the European shipowners who are very positive about experimenting with battery power and other technologies.

Q: Given the environment you outlined, what are the technologies that you feel will dominate in the future?

A: I’m betting on an energy mix. It’s the same on land. Solar works great in some places, it doesn’t work great in others. Wind works great where it’s windy, it doesn’t work where it isn’t windy. Nuclear should be in the mix, as should geothermal. It’s the same for ships. Ships are operating in a lot of different areas, a lot of different routes, a lot of different speeds. Wind and solar will definitely be there but they won’t be primary sources of propulsion or power. Because of the politics, nuclear’s not going to be that dominant. I would say hydrogen fuel cells have a lot of promise simply because they’re going to put so much investment into cars and land-based hydrogen and this is going to leak out to shipping. LNG will probably get a good slice of the market just because it’s available now and it’s relatively simple to get up and running.

Q: Is LNG the bridge then between where we are today and where the industry needs to go?

A: That’s the way it’s being positioned in shipping. It’s hard to know what percent of the market it will take up but it seems at the moment to be gaining quite a bit of market share, especially if you look at cruise ships.

Q: Can you explain how your EnergySail technology fits into this mix?

A: The EnergySail is a platform and it’s either a wind platform or a solar platform, or both. It acts partially as a sail in a traditional rigid sail sense — the wind hits the back of it — but it’s also half a wing shape so it can be angled in that the wind could come around the front of the sail and that will create a bit of lift and that will also push the ship forward or it can be mounted with solar power devices or solar panels. The vision is that these would be used as an array. There’d be maybe a dozen mounted on a ship and together they’re going to provide solar and wind power and help move the ship forward.

Q: What kind of power savings are you expecting from such an array?

A: Wind is the bigger deliverer of power per meter than solar. Solar is maybe 100 watts per meter of deck space. The sails can be a lot more because the power pushing onto the ship increases as the wind speed increases. So we’re talking five, 10, 15 percent power savings. The slower the ship goes, then the more sails you can get on and the higher the fuel saving.

Q: Do you have a sense of how much power output you’ll get?

A: We want to be getting close to 500 kilowatts from an array. If you keep making the sails bigger, you’ll get more power. We think the limit’s probably going to be about 12 meters high and about 100 square meters per sail.

Another key part of our technology is the control algorithm to put the sail in the right position depending on the weather conditions and what the ship’s doing, and also to make it safe so that it automatically brings the sails down if the wind gets too strong without the crew even reacting.

Q: So where do batteries come in?

A: Furukawa Battery went through their batteries, looked at their whole range, looked at requirements for shipping and then gave us a range of batteries from the bigger range. They then went to Class NK, which is the ship certification society, and then with Class NK they were able to narrow down the range of batteries at a high level and get them approved for marine use. We’ve done two projects with Furukawa on ships. One was in Greece, and we’re now doing a project with Masterbulk, which is a Singapore-based shipping company. The challenge then is on the installation side, meaning how much space you’ve got around the battery for ventilation, and protection for when they get too hot. The batteries are installed in a specially engineered installation rack that keeps them in place, protects the terminals and allows the air to circulate.

Q: So the batteries are being used to power auxiliary functions on the ship?

A: During the day, we bring the power straight into the batteries. The batteries keep the voltage stable and then we go straight out to a load. A good load is LED lights and there’s plenty of them on a ship. The second application is for the batteries to act as storage so they would keep an excess amount of charge during the day and then we would switch that in at night.

Q: So where are you at now with the trials?

A: We’re on two ships on the solar side. We’ve done the project in Greece and we’re doing the project now with Masterbulk. That’s using solar mainly for a lighting load. Next year we’ll be adding EnergySails to a ship. We don’t know which shipowner at the moment but we’re talking to several. There’s no way of really testing anything for a ship unless you test it on a ship.

With the system in Greece, we had to bake it in for five or six years before we knew that it was stable. For the sails, we’ll probably have to do testing for two or three years before you’re really confident that it can take the harsh conditions. The solar part of the system is commercial now. For the EnergySail side, I’d say 2020, 2021 they’ll be commercial.

Q: What kind of support are shipping companies providing?

A: Ten years ago if you went into a lot of shipping companies and you said you were there to talk about renewable energy, they’d almost call security and escort you out of the building. At the beginning there was a lot of resistance. They were getting the fuel cheap, times were good, there were no regulations. The attitude is slowly changing but it’s a very very conservative industry.

Q: So where does the financing come from?

A: We’re self-financed and the partners are self-financing. We’re all treating this as a big R&D project and taking the costs on and hoping there’s a bright light at the end of the tunnel. Probably this year we will go out to look at investors because the only way to get market penetration is to go out and do three or four systems and build up resources to do them.

Q: What is the scope of investment needed for you and for the industry?

A: If you raise too much money it can actually be more of a problem than a blessing because it could make you a bit less efficient. We’re probably looking at about $5 million, so it’s not a huge amount. For shipping, you’re talking about many hundreds of millions of dollars, probably billions, to invest in technology. At the moment the easy options are being taken, like scrubbers. There’s a big debate in shipping whether they’re good or not.

Q: If you’re a shipowner, why invest in renewables now when the fleet is going to renew itself two times over between now and when the industry’s next emissions reduction targets kick in?

Things like green logistics will be the big driver. A lot of companies are starting to look at their whole logistics chain and asking what’s being done to reduce their emissions or carbon footprint. If the charterers or the people moving the cargo say they aren’t going to use a company’s ships unless they display a commitment to using renewable energy and reducing emissions, then they will quickly come into line. Commercial pressure will be more effective than government measures.

Q: What sector of the shipping industry are you targeting?

We picked cargo ships initially because they move at a good speed that’s good for wind power — the slower the ship moves, the better — and Japan makes a lot of advanced bulkers. Teramoto Iron Works is here. They can deliver the EnergySail by barge to the shipyards. It made sense to initially focus on a ship that’s made in this region that we can deliver relatively easily from the factory here. In stage two we’ll tackle other markets. An interesting one for us would be cruise ships but they need to slow down and they need to be a little bit serious about environmental issues.

Q: Is there any country where the interest is strongest?

Western Europe shipowners tend to be interested in eco technologies so we get a lot of inquiries from that part of the world. One of the biggest barriers to getting any of this running is developing a different mindset. If you were doing this in aerospace or telecoms or IT, they would really want to see it. In shipping it’s quite often that the industry doesn’t want to know about it or doesn’t want to hear about it. It’s like shipping is waiting for the regulations to come around and beat them over the head and make them do something and that’s disappointing. You’d rather see people getting ahead of the curve.

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