Looking forward to our electric future

Progress is being made on the industry’s decarbonisation journey

By Michael Grey

The pace of change in the maritime industry, despite its reputation for conservatism, continues to surprise. It is not that long ago that we were inclined to mock the complaints of Californians who suggested that the emissions pollution from vessels in their ports was responsible for a ‘diesel death zone’, with premature deaths being put down to the air people were breathing. Some sceptics indeed suggested that it was road traffic, obesity and lifestyles, rather than ships’ exhausts, which, in the end, turned out to be the guilty party.

But the years roll on and nobody today would argue with the premise that there is a need for clean air around ports and that ships need to play their part in this green revolution. Which is easier said than done, although the concept of ‘cold ironing’, in which ships plug into shore power and shut down their generators once alongside, has been around for some time. For a start, the provision of electric connections to berths is not a trouble-free journey.

If you consider some of the world’s biggest ports, spread over many kilometres of quaysides, there will be a huge expense for port operators.

There is also the question of whether the local electric supplies will be able to cope with the demands of many big ships, particularly huge cruise vessels with their vast electrical loads. And it is not exactly helping the environment if the power that is taken by the shipping customers is generated from coal-fired or other fossil-fuelled power stations. But progress is being made and ports are indeed working to provide such facilities for ships, although it is also a challenge for the ships themselves, which need on board power connections. Standardisation, not surprisingly, has been another problem.

Halfway house

While the business of shore connections for power sources is proceeding, the shipping industry is now moving onto another phase in the ‘de-carbonising’ process, with more ships using electrical or hybrid systems, many of which would ideally be able to charge their batteries when alongside, from the shore grid. There are already quite a number of all-electric ferries on short routes where charging facilities are available and a growing number of ever-larger hybrid craft. Two of the biggest ferries ever built will enter service on the English Channel next year but they will require sophisticated charging arrangements to be provided at their terminals.

As tugs have also been identified as a source of pollution in port waters, there are a number of designs for hybrid tugs already available and several already in service. Tugs of course have what might be described as an ‘erratic’

demand for power, with maximum power only being used during towage operations and the machinery virtually idling as they transit around the port waters between towage tasks. The challenge has been to design a craft that minimised the contribution to atmospheric pollution in confined port areas. There are several all-electric tugs either in service or soon to arrive in their home ports, and these of course will need to charge from the shore grid, between towage jobs. Batteries are becoming bigger and better and there are now quite large ship-handling tugs that will use their diesels only for maximum power, working on the batteries as they move between jobs or alongside.

New methods of propulsion and ‘clean operations’ require a new skill set for marine engineers and there must be a change in training to equip people to operate these demanding vessels. There is already a shortage of electro-technical skills and there is also a range of safety concerns that must be confronted, as big lithium batteries provide new hazards that must be properly understood.

It is also something of a challenge coping with these new and incremental challenges of training, skills and practice, while much of the industry continues to operate ships which run on traditional diesel power plants, albeit with some exciting new fuels.