Maersk — the world’s largest container shipping line — has just ordered 8 new ships that will run on green methanol. Each vessel can carry 16,000 containers and will be built by Hyundai Heavy Industries. Reuters says deliveries are expected to begin in 2023 and to be completed by early 2024.
The vessels will be 10-15% more expensive than normal container ships and will cost $175 million a piece, says Ole Graa Jakobsen, head of fleet technology for Maersk. The new ships will be fitted with engines which can run on both green methanol, which is produced by using renewable sources such as biomass and solar energy, as well as normal bunker fuel, since adequate supplies of green methanol are not yet available. Traditionally, methanol is obtained from unnatural gas or coal.
Maersk says more than half of its 200 largest customers, including Amazon, Disney, and Microsoft, have set or are in the process of setting targets to cut emissions in their supply chain. “We’re in it for our customers … and thankfully they are very appreciative of this and demand is really growing,” Morten Bo Christiansen, head of decarbonization for Maersk, told the press recently.
Maersk says the new vessels will result in annual CO2 emissions reductions of around 1 million tons of carbon dioxide. Last year, Maersk’s operations emitted 33 million tons of CO2. 90% of all goods manufactured and sold internationally are transported by sea. In total, global shipping accounts for nearly 3% of the world’s carbon emissions.
The Danish firm said this month it had signed a contract with Denmark’s REintegrate to produce 10,000 tonnes of carbon neutral e-methanol for the first of its new ships. In total, the shipping company burns 20 million tons of fuel each year.
“Let’s stop talking about fossil fuels and instead focus on scaling this prototype because it’s actually solving the problem,” Christiansen says. “It’s actually not that much more expensive, because even if we double our fuel cost, the impact on a pair of sneakers is less than five cents. The good news is that because of the amount of oil we consume we can actually start shaping a market just on our demand,” he says.
Maersk and other large shipping companies have been pushing for cleaner fuels for years, but the issue is cost. Bunker fuel is cheap. Every other kind of fuel is more expensive, which means shipping rates have to go up as a result. There are many other companies using ships built 40 years ago who are only too happy to offer lower prices to customers unconcerned about the environmental impact of their activities.
It’s the dirty little secret of capitalism. When the bottom line is all that matters, anything that adds to it is scrupulously avoided. In that respect, capitalism is like a virus, consuming everything it touches, including its host.
So what is this green methanol, exactly? For the answer, we turn to ThyssenKrupp, which says, “The technology for synthesizing renewable methanol from hydrogen and carbon dioxide in small-scale plants was developed in an exclusive partnership between ThyssenKrupp and Swiss Liquid Future AG. For industrial scale plants, ThyssenKrupp will employ its own Uhde Methanol technology.
“The hydrogen is produced by means of the proprietary and highly efficient alkaline water electrolysis process which is based on the proven chlor-alkali electrode technology developed by ThyssenKrupp Uhde Chlorine Engineers. The carbon dioxide is recovered from biogas or other fermentation plants, flue gas, or waste gas. By removing or keeping this greenhouse gas from the atmosphere, the process makes an important contribution to climate protection.
“The electric power required for green methanol production comes from renewable sources, such as wind power, geothermal energy or hydropower. In other words, this green methanol technology makes particular sense in countries where there is plenty of renewable power as well as a legal framework that further renewable energy and its conversion into chemicals.”
The company’s website goes on to say,
“Our renewable methanol is not just environmentally sound but can also be used in a variety of ways, e.g. as an energy carrier for storing electricity generated from renewable sources or as a transportation fuel. Methanol can be added to conventional liquid fuels or used to fuel 100% methanol-based drive systems.
“For example, a methanol-reforming technology developed by ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems produces the hydrogen required for the unique HDW Fuel Cell System that powers non-nuclear submarines. Leading shipping companies are also investigating the use of methanol as fuel in conventional combustion engines and in methanol-powered fuel cells. The great advantage of methanol is that existing infrastructure for liquid fuels can be used directly or modified easily and inexpensively.”
Maersk is to be applauded for taking action to lower its carbon emissions, but there is so much more that needs to be done. Ridding the Earth of the scourge of excess carbon dioxide created by human activity is going to create wrenching dislocations in the “business as usual” model. All that global trade is created by the incessant hunt for lower wages, which may be an economic paradigm the world can no longer afford.
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