Will renewable energy fuel a new generation of eco-shipping?

Green sailing

The Greenheart project is amongst those revolutionising the shipping sector by utilising renewable energy sources to power a new generation of ocean going craft. Illustration: Greenheart project

B9 Shipping and the Greenheart project are pioneering new, fully sustainable, forms of ship design. Despite industry scepticism the boats - based on wind power and biomethane - could signify a return to the great age of sail, reports Ewan Kingston

Shipping will never be green, right? Cargo ships: those fossil-fuel-guzzling hulks, are ubiquitous. The International Maritime Organisation reports that the global shipping industry emits over a billion tonnes of CO2 per year – an output equal to Germany's – and produces large amounts of black carbon and toxic oxides of sulphur to boot. There's still no agreed upon mechanism to render the industry responsible for its greenhouse gas emissions. At the end of their lives, ships are dismantled in dangerous  and toxic conditions in the less developed countries.

But shipping doesn't have to be an environmentalist's nightmare. While shipping has a footprint on a par with aviation, it manages to carry carry 90% of the world's total volume of freight. An Ecologist investigation published in 2009 highlighted energy-saving technologies that have the potential to reduce the carbon footprint of conventional shipping by up to three-quarters. Now recent developments in the world of shipping is mean plans for 100% renewably powered ships are drawing close to fruition.

The Greenheart project, for instance, is currently developing plans for a one-container capacity ship that is capable of beach landings, driven entirely by the wind and solar-powered electric motors. The Netherlands-based Atlantis Merchant Shipping Company also plans to build a one-container  ship  powered only by sails and a small motor boat for in-port maneuvering. B9 Shipping on the other hand, has designed a larger ship to be powered by the wind and biogas. Greenheart and B9 aim to have demonstration vessels in the water within two years, and production could commence immediately after that.

Playboys and sportspeople

A conventional history of sail-power might describe its commercial application withering to nothing around the turn of the century, and the technology being sustained only by enthusiasts, playboys and sportspeople. The reality is somewhat different. Pat Utley, founder of the Tokyo-based Greenheart project points to a wealth of wind-powered trade occurring under the radar. ‘Take green shipping: even the name itself is biased because most of what's green has never been labeled green, it's just brown, dusty brown, and it has been practiced for millennia.’ Utley shows me a slideshow displaying the wide range of current coastal trading operations under sail, from canoes to dhows. ‘Long routes, such as the dhows and junks attract the attention of National Geographic.’  But even smaller scale coastal trading using dugouts and smaller vessels is more common. Utley estimates that thousands of tonnes of cargo can pass through a single beach every year. 

Utley's project is to link this already existing local maritime system with the larger network of containerised trade in a uniquely green way. The proposed prototype ship has a  26 metre mast, 200-300 square metres of sail, and a ingenious concertina-style array of solar panels that can be stretched out on deck or even  over the water, but stowed away when deck space is needed for heavier work. Excess electricity from the solar panels will be channeled into a desalinator to produce drinking water. The whole design is aimed at using technology simple and affordable enough to mean the ships can be assembled by the very groups they are intended to serve: coastal communities in less developed countries.

The Greenheart ship is intended to have a wide variety of applications, from its central role as a cargo ship to serving as a campaign boat or a fishing vessel, to uses in ecotourism and passenger travel, and even functioning as a stationary desalinator.

A sceptical concern might be that as the Greenheart Project is aiming at linking traditional communities to the wider world of transnational commerce , the fast paced development that means will bring as much harm as it does good.  Utley sees things another way. One of the main aims of the Greenheart project is to empower coastal communities, communities which almost inevitably are already  linked to the rest of the world by roads. ‘People depend on those road systems, but they  pay dearly for it,’ Utley says. The construction of roads damages delicate tropical soils and the traffic that ply them are energy hogs compared to Greenheart's wind-and-solar powered light trader. Its ability to land on beaches  also avoids the need for ports which mar natural coastlines. Ultimately, Utley wants the Greenheart project to be a case of  appropriate development: a natural progression in the world of sailing in the developing world. ‘We do more for cultural preservation by keeping a useful technology like sailing alive for these communities.’ says Utley.

Fossil fuel free

Greenheart project boats will be able to be assembled by and serve the needs of remote coastal communities. Illustration: Greenheart project

While the vision of the Greenheart project involves small one-container ships capable of beach-landings, B9 Shipping has a different vision. Their prototype, slated for completion in 2012, will be a coastal trader capable of carrying 3000 tonnes. While this is still an order of magnitude away from the giant container ships plying ocean routes today, it represents a significant achievement for what will be a 100 per cent fossil fuel free vessel. The B9 ship, with a hull of recycled steel, is designed to catch the wind at sea with three 50m high masts of square sails. But when the wind isn't blowing, the ship will be powered not by solar power like the Greenheart's ship, but by B9's own biomethane produced from anaerobic digesters and landfills, powering combustion engines.

At first blush, it seems an eminently sensible idea.  With the price of fuel forcing container ships to run at speeds slower than the old sailing clippers, and the imperative of environmental sustainability becoming more and more evident, the B9 approach has practical advantages over a fossil fuel based approach. Development Director Diane Gilpin expresses this forcefully: ‘We have always delivered business plans that have shown we can be competitive in terms of cargo rates and consistently delivering to schedule. There isn't really any huge design issue. It's all straightforward solutions being brought forward in an imaginative, innovative way.’ What's more, the smaller size of the B9 ship proves an advantage when it comes to competing with dirtier land freight options – while exporters might have to wait a considerable time for a large ship to fill with cargo,  smaller ships can load and sail much quicker. And it's not as if 3000 tonnes is the upper limit for such a 100 per cent renewably powered vessel.

B9 Managing Director David Surplus tells me that drawings exist for a 9000 tonne vessel, with a 20,000 tonne vessel not an impossibility. Such vessels might ultimately replace the fossil fuel powered fleet we see today: ‘We foresee carnage in conventional shipping fleets as they become progressively exposed behind the carbon reduction curve,’ says Surplus.

Despite the robustness of the B9 business plan,  it hasn't all been plain sailing with regard to the perception in the industry: ‘The maritime industry is just not getting it with regards to renewables on ships: you come across some dinosaurs who think you are barking mad – we met someone from the IMO who was really quite abusive.’ Gilpin retains a sense of perspective about this however. ‘If you are working in this industry where costs are being stressed and all the margins are tight  [and] your livelihood depends on [them], it's going to be stressful. So when someone breezes in and talks about a [cargo] ship with sails – they don't have time, because they are so engrossed in their own difficulties.’

Downing Street

Although Gilpin and her associates have been proposing ideas for renewable shipping since the 1980s, recently a lot of powerful people in business and politics have had time for B9's proposals. Gilpin talks of the ‘collaborative network’, and B9 has indeed gained some valuable allies.  The principal designer of the ships is Rob Humphreys, who designed record-breaking circumnavigator Ellen MacArthur's Kingfisher.  Respect and assistance has been offered from many quarters, in the form of Rolls Royce engines to the expert assistance of the Met Office in route planning. Last year,  B9 representatives visited Downing Street after an invitation from the then Prime Minister.  The most recent development in the B9 story has seen a partnership with currently idle Sunderland shipyard Pallion, which will enable 7-10 green B9 ships to be built every year, in a former major shipbuilding centre.

As well as the business side, there's a more human sense of appeal to these renewable shipping projects.  Gilpin tries to explain:  ‘I don't want to sound like Pollyanna – that it's all wonderful – but the nature of these ships lights something in most people... the chairman of the [B9] group works with me on the shipping contract because it's the most exciting.’  This sense of excitement and ownership will hopefully extend all the way to the  crew.  As well as requiring more sophisticated seamanship than a conventional coastal trader, sailing skill will be actively rewarded onboard. As sailors that can harness the free energy of the wind more effectively will save the company in terms of biogas, that bonus will be shared amongst the crew. Celebrating the return of the old ways is also central.  ‘When we open the shipyard we're going to do it with a party, because the low-carbon future is going to be fun, it's not all about hair shirts and rope sandals.’ says Gilpin.

This sense of excitement and joy is one of the other aspects both Greenheart and B9 share. Patrick Utley tells the story of when Greenheart gained its first volunteer. ‘We met at a boat show in Tokyo, and he told me  he wanted to volunteer. I said “sorry, we don't have any volunteers, it's just me and these drawings”, but he just persisted. I don't think it's my charisma... people recognise the wisdom of the project and join on.’

Useful links:

The Greenheart Project

B9 Shipping

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