The Renewable Solution To One Of The World’s Dirtiest Industries

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By Haley Zaremba

“If all the ships on Earth were a single country, that country would be the sixth-largest polluter in the world.” This shocking fact comes from a recent NPR report by the Short Wave science podcast that delves into the dirty business of shipping, which as an industry ranks just behind Japan in its pollution levels. This is partly because of the gargantuan scale of the shipping industry, but it’s also in large part because these massive ships burn a particularly dirty heavy fuel oil, also known as bunker fuel.

But there is something unique about the shipping industry’s relation to its carbon footprint. As climate reporter Rebecca Hersher told NPR, “I cover a lot of big pollution-heavy industries as a climate reporter. And shipping has something going for it that’s kind of cool, which is that they have publicly acknowledged that they have a problem – they’re dirty […] Second, they’re actually trying to change it, which is good.”

The shipping industry has been amazingly open to changing their standard operating procedure when it comes to carbon emissions and dirty fuel, so much so that “Maersk, the largest shipping company in the world, has already promised to go zero carbon by 2050.” While zero carbon may sound like a far-fetched and lofty goal, it’s not just PR and so much hot air–the shipping industry has a plan. The answer to green shipping, according to industry leaders, is not with any cutting edge futuristic technological breakthroughs, but with a technology that we have had for decades–hydrogen fuel cells.

Indeed, last month’s Maritime Hybrid & Electric Conference in Bergen, Norway featured lots of discussion about implementing the zero-emissions fuel cells broadly across the industry in the extremely near future. At the conference,“ Hyon managing director Tomas Tronstad, addressed the advancement of hydrogen fuel cells in his sector, saying “There is really a push by regulators, a push by state-owned operators using their purchasing power and a pull from (government) authorities offering co-funding. There is also a pull from operators because they want to be green and from companies such as ours that are offering a more viable solution.” One poll revealed that the industry as a whole is interested in implementing hydrogen fuel cells within the next five years. The Hellenic Shipping News also reported this week that “to mitigate the environmental impact of this increase, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) recently adopted a new strategy aimed at reducing greenhouse gases (GHG) from shipping by 50% by 2050 compared to 2008 levels. This comes on top of the previously established NOx and SOx caps that should be in place by 2020. The shipping industry needs to quickly explore new solutions to cut emissions.” This is a major overhaul for such a short time span–and one with positive externalities so significant that they would be difficult to overstate.

A recent report from the Seatrade Maritime News gave a close look into one such project, a French yacht that has already implemented an onboard hydrogen production system, in order to catch “a glimpse of how an emissions free future will look for the industry.” The ship is the Energy Observer, an America’s Cup catamaran that has been converted to be powered by an electric motor with a hydrogen fuel cell. The report explains that “the hydrogen is produced on board using a desalination plant to produce fresh water, a proton exchange membrane (PEM) electrolyser that splits the hydrogen atoms from the oxygen component in water molecules and a compression unit that pumps the liquid hydrogen into storage tanks” and that furthermore “Energy Observer is also covered in solar panels for extra electric power that can be stored in an on-board lithium ion battery pack weighing 1.7 tonnes and recently installed wing sails have added to the vessels range of power options.”

Louis-Noël Viviès, managing director of the Energy Observer project, told the Seatrade Maritime News that while the catamaran is certainly a far cry from the massive scale of a standard shipping vessel, the technology can be scaled up. In fact, the article reports that “the group operating the vessel have already entered into a partnership with French container line CMA CGM to develop a system for emissions free auxiliary power for its boxships.”

The Energy Observer is just one of many hydrogen fuel cell projects currently underway, with other projects taking place in Norway, California, and other countries that are already beginning the race toward zero-emissions shipping.

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