A matter of logistics
In the years following the 2007 global economic downturn, a perfect storm of high fuel prices, low freight rates and a slowdown in the growth of world trade, gave shipping companies an incentive to improve their efficiency.
As a result, slow steaming is now the industry norm: speeds have been slashed from the standard 25 knots (nautical miles per hour) down to 20 knots, with many companies cruising as slowly as 12 knots to save fuel. Studies conducted between 2007 and 2012 showed that this change alone can reduce emissions by up to 70 per cent, depending on the size of the vessel.
Maersk Line has made further efficiency savings by controlling its fleet from a single location.
“Our Global Voyage centre in Mumbai monitors our vessels 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” explains Signe Bruun Jensen, the company’s Global Head of Sustainability. “Every ship is connected to shore via GPS and satellite communications, allowing us to monitor speed, fuel efficiency, weather conditions and other relevant parameters.”
Although the global economy is recovering, shipping companies are likely to keep slow steaming and other efficiency measures, given their positive financial impact.
A sea change in technology
Over the longer term, shipping can only become truly sustainable through technological innovation, much of which is already within reach. Maersk Line’s latest Triple-E vessels (the ‘Triple-E’ stands for energy efficiency, economies of scale and environmentally friendly) slash emissions by half for every container shipped.
“Two ‘ultra-long stroke’ engines, an innovative efficient hull shape for slower speed and advanced waste heat recovery system have improved CO2 efficiency per container moved dramatically,” Mr Jensen explains.
Greater gains will come from the use of fuels cleaner than HFO. Liquid natural gas (LNG) is a viable and relatively clean option, though its adoption will require major investments in pipelines and new refuelling facilities.
Other solutions are marine gas oil and marine diesel oil. HFO-powered vessels can be retrofitted to use these distillates, though they remain more expensive than current fuels.
Even so, neither of these options would completely solve the greenhouse-gas emissions problem. “Do we really want to introduce LNG or distillates when they are still fossil fuels, and methane leakage is an issue?” asks Mr Raptis.
A renewables future?
A major change would see renewables like wind and solar energy playing a dominant role, and some shippers are already investing in such technologies. Japan’s Eco Marine Power has developed solar sails it claims can reduce a vessel’s annual fuel consumption by up to 20 per cent. Also under development at Ocius in Australia, solar sails consist of multiple rigid sails fitted with solar panels. These are being retrofitted to commercial ships along with fuel cells to store electricity generated until it is required.
Another wind-assistance technology is being pioneered by Germany’s SkySails. The company’s innovative automated kites can generate up to 25 times more energy per square metre than conventional sails, resulting in a 10-35 per cent reduction in fuel consumption.
Taken together, regulation, operational efficiency and new technologies are transforming a rigid and conservative industry into one in which sustainability is embedded in everything it does.
“This,” emphasises Maersk’s Bang, “gives shipping a licence to grow in tomorrow’s carbon-constrained economy.”