The idea of bringing wind power back to the seven seas is gathering steam, now that the global shipping industry is getting more serious about decarbonizing. The latest entry in the growing panoply of wind-assisted technology for cargo ships is a giant, kite-like sail that has just been tethered to the deck of the Ville de Bordeaux, a roll-on/roll-off vessel commissioned by the leading aircraft manufacturer Airbus.
First Ever Wind Power For A Ro-Ro
The Airbus connection is no accident. The new sail, called Seawing, is produced by the Airbus spinoff Airseas.
“Founded by former Airbus engineers, Airseas is unique in its integration of expertise from the aeronautical sector, including digital twin and automation technology, to the maritime industry,” explains Bureau Veritas, the certification group that signed off on a test run at sea for the new sail.
“This means that the Seawing can be safely deployed, operated and stored at the push of a button, and can be retrofitted on a ship in two days,” BV continues.
“A simple switch launches or recovers the kite which unfolds, operates and refolds autonomously,” Airseas explains. “The system collects and analyses meteorological and oceanic data in real-time. SeaWing adapts to this information in order to optimise its performance as well as ensure maximum safety.”
Wind Power From An Actual Sail
Various wind energy harvesting devices for cargo ships have been popping up on the CleanTechnica radar in recent months, but they don’t particularly resemble conventional sails. Much of the activity has centered on the flat, hard sails popularized in boat racing, with one particularly interesting cylinder-type wind harvester in the works.
The Ville de Bordeaux will sport a sail that actually resembles a conventional sail, of the kite-like parafoil type used in kite-surfing.
The test sequence of 6 months follows a 3-year R&D collaboration with BV. For the test, Ville de Bordeaux will deploy a 500-square-meter parafoil sail. If all goes according to plan, the next step is a full sized, 1,000-square-meter parafoil with a cruising altitude of 300 meters.
At that scale, Airseas anticipates a 20% average cut in fuel consumption, and a consequent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.
What Is This Ro-Ro Of Which You Speak?
As the name suggests, Ro-Ro cargo ships are designed to accommodate cargo with wheels. The cargo rolls on and off a ramp, rather than being lifted on and off by a crane. Ro-Ro ships don’t make up the bulk of the maritime shipping fleet — general cargo ships lay claim to that — but there are currently about 7,000 at sea and more are on the way, if predictions about growth in the global shipping industry bear out.
A 20% fuel savings sounds mighty attractive, especially when you throw in that thing about a two-day installation timeline. Full automation could also practically eliminate the need for additional crew and training to get the parafoil up and running, and to tuck it away in bad weather.
Airbus is particularly interested in the technology because it would enable the company to cut the cost of shipping aircraft and parts around the world.
Wind Power Plus Green Ammonia Could Happen
That thing about wind power cutting costs could also come into play if and when the global shipping industry switches out of fossil energy.
The general consensus is that wind power is not a 100% fuel replacer, unless you mean wind power from wind farms located on land, which is used to charge batteries for a battery-electric ship.
On the other hand, battery fans may have a while to wait for the technology to scale up to cargo ship level. Wind power or not, batteries are being used on a small scale to power electric boats of various sorts, over relatively short distances.
The same goes for fuel cell electric ships, which are also beginning to emerge on the smaller end of the scale. A full sized ocean-going cargo ship powered exclusively on fuel cells is many years away.
The green ammonia option pops into view once hydrogen appears on the scene. Within the past couple of years, the market for green hydrogen has blown up and it shows no signs of slowing down. The next step is to combine green hydrogen with ambient nitrogen from the air, to produce green ammonia., which can be used as a carbon free fuel. The global fertilizer and shipping firm Yara has already hopped on board the green ammonia trend.
There being no such thing as a free lunch, however, ammonia is not a pollution-free fuel. It gives off nitrogen oxides when burned.
Researchers are hammering away at the NOx problem, but they better act fast. Leading shipping industry stakeholders are already pivoting into dual fuel technology, by way of positioning themselves for ammonia-powered propulsion.
Wind power could still come into the picture. After all, green ammonia doesn’t grow on trees, but wind is free. Shippers will still be looking for ways to trim fuel costs, regardless of what they’re burning.
What About Electric Boats?
Despite all the new activity in the wind power and ammonia fields, it’s way to early for fans of electric boats to give up the ship. Even if the shipping industry doesn’t get to 100% electricity, leading engineering firms like Mitsubishi are working on hybrid ships that can bounce back and forth between batteries, fuel cells, and combustible carbon-free fuels.
Wind power will almost certainly be in the mix, considering the pace of activity in that area.
The most effective solution, of course, would be for people to stop buying so much stuff from faraway places. That’s not going to happen any time soon. After all, millions of people here in the US and around the world refuse to take simple steps to protect themselves against catching a lethal virus. It’s a little ambitious to imagine a world in which people consider the environmental impact of the global shipping industry whenever they have money to burn.
The consensus is that the global shipping industry will continue to grow, though a sea change in workforce patterns could help slow things down. Industry observers have already noted that a shortage of truckers has impacted various ports, forcing cargo ships to wait at anchor for longer periods of time — but that’s not the only problem.
More concerning is a shortage of qualified maritime officers. Last summer, our friends over at Maritime Executive reported that “the global shipping industry is facing a potentially serious shortage of officers by 2026,” according to a joint assessment between the BIMCO maritime union and the International Chamber of Shipping.
“The trade group and union predicted that with continued industry growth there will be a need for nearly 90,000 officers by 2026 required to operate the world’s merchant fleet. The organizations are calling for a significant increase in recruiting and training both to address the current shortfall and the projected long-term need for officers.
“Although there has been a 10.8 percent increase in the supply of officers since 2015, the report indicates that there is currently a shortfall of 26,240 officers that will increase in the coming years. They believe that demand is currently outpacing supply possibly in part due to the need for more officers aboard each vessel,” ME adds.
The industry is looking to diversify its workforce pipeline and recruit more women into officer training programs, but they won’t have much luck here in the US, unless they can convince various Republican elected officials and members of the Supreme Court to quit bowing down at the alter of embryonic personhood and focus their attention on the rights of actual people.
Follow me on Twitter @TinaMCasey.
Photo: Wind power for cargo ships courtesy of Bureau Veritas.