Cars and light trucks are sexy, but when it comes to reducing carbon and nitrogen emissions from the transportation sector, vehicles that haul freight are where the action is. Tractor trailers, urban delivery vans, and ships have long been reliant on diesel engines. They are efficient and reliable, but have a nasty habit of spewing millions of tons of vile stuff into the atmosphere every year. Dutch company Port Liner has a better idea. It will be introducing an autonomous electric barge for the European market beginning in August of this year.
Port Liner CEO Ton van Meegen tells The Loadstar, a shipping industry trade journal, that 5 autonomous electric barges will begin operating between the De Kempen intermodal terminal in the south of the Netherlands and Antwerp beginning in August. They have been designed to fit beneath the many bridges found in the Netherlands and Belgium. The barges are expected to remove 23,000 trucks — most of them diesel powered — from area roads.
Larger barges that can handle up to 280 containers are expected to enter service between Amsterdam, Antwerp, and Rotterdam later this year. The technology for the autonomous ships was made possible through an investment of €7 million by the European Union as part of a program to improve port efficiency. The port of Antwerp also invested €200,000 in the project.
Apart from the ability to operate autonomously, what is interesting about the new vessels is that the batteries are mounted in a container of their own, which means they can be used by existing vessels. “This allows us to retrofit barges already in operation, which is a big boost for the industry’s green energy credentials,” says van Meegen. “The containers are charged onshore by carbon free energy provider Eneco, which sources solar power, windmills and renewables.”
He goes on to say, “There are some 7,300 inland vessels across Europe and more than 5,000 of those are owned by entrepreneurs in Belgium and the Netherlands. We can build upwards of 500 a year, but at that rate it would take some 50 years to get the industry operating on green energy.” Far be it from me to argue with the learned Mr. Van Meegen, but my calculator says it would take 15 years to replace 7,300 vessels at the rate of 500 a year. Nevertheless, transitioning from diesel-powered ships to those that run on electricity has to be good news for all concerned, including the larger world community.
Norway, which has an extensive network of cargo ships and passenger ferries, is also pushing ahead with plans for autonomous electric vessels. China recently launched an electric cargo ship. Ironically, it will be used to haul coal, but at least it will deliver it without adding emissions from a diesel engine. Electric ships may not be able to span the globe and cross oceans just yet, but Rome wasn’t built in a day. Converting coastal and inland ships to electric power is a harbinger of good things to come.
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