Leading players in the global shipping industry have been trying all sorts of new technologies to cut their carbon footprints, and meanwhile an old one has been staring them in the face all along. That would be wind power, of course. Propelling one of today’s massive, full-sized cargo vessel on sail power alone is a non-starter, but the French shipping startup VELA has come up with a 100% wind-driven business model that could attract niche customers that want to transport the all finer things in life, without all the carbon baggage.
Wind Energy Makes A Comeback, With Pallets
VELA started up in 2021 with the idea of transferring the principles of high performance sailboat racing to the cargo shipping world, and the company did not let the grass grow under its feet. By June 13 of this year VELAA was ready to introduce its new design, a sleek looking trimaran.
Wind energy is not the only big difference between VELA and other shipping firms. The choice of a trimaran configuration right there is a daring plunge. As the name suggests, trimarans are three-hulled boats, a sharp departure from the single hull that has defined cargo ships for hundreds of years. VELA points out that the three-hull configuration provides more stability for both cargo and crew.
Another key difference is the absence of shipping containers. The VELA trimaran can carry 51 of the equivalent of standard TEU containers, but without the containers. Instead, the goods are loaded on pallets. Fully loaded, the trimaran can carry up to 450 standard US pallets.
“Containers have been ruling goods transportation over the last 50 years.This choice was made for economic reasons but with a high environmental impact, just like air freight,” VELA explains, adding that “the weight of the containers (3 tons each) accounts for more than 20% of what is being transported on a conventional container ship vs. 2% for equivalent pallets (25kg each).”
“Using pallets enables the transport of goods alone, without useless extra weight. Each pallet represents a reduction of 200kg in weight and the corresponding CO2 emissions,” VELA emphasizes. They also note that the pallets are a space-saver.
To ice the green cake, the trimaran is designed to be dismantled into components that can be re-used or repurposed.
Savings Beyond Wind Energy
According to VELA’s analysis, relying exclusively on wind energy for propulsion results in impressive cut of 99% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions for the trimaran, compared to conventional container ships. If you’re wondering where the other 1% went, that’s a good question. Almost all sailboats of any particular size need an auxiliary power source for life support systems, navigation and other equipment, and emergency response, as well as maneuvering around harbors.
The trimaran will use on-board solar power and a battery for some non-sailing energy. CleanTechnica is reaching out to VELA for more details on that. In the meantime, VELA points out that its trimaran can visit smaller ports, potentially bringing the goods closer to a client’s factory, warehouse, or other destination. That would help cut down on truck or rail transportation and further reduce the carbon footprint of the trip overall.
UPDATE: From VELA — Concerning on-board energy (galley, hold, etc.). First and foremost, the holds of VELA vessels will be insulated to reduce energy requirements to a minimum. Residual needs are covered as far as possible by renewable energies. The shape of the vessel offers a significant advantage in terms of renewable energy production. The generous upper deck surface offers the opportunity to install several hundred m2 of photovoltaic panels. In addition, our ships will also be equipped with hydro-generators, which generate electricity using the current created by the ship’s forward motion under sail. In this way, almost 50% of onboard energy needs are covered by renewable sources. The remainder is expected to be powered by diesel-electric drives.
The downside of relying on 100% wind energy is the doldrums, meaning not enough wind to propel the ship. That’s not an issue with today’s advanced route planning systems, which enable sailboats to take advantage of optimal conditions. VELA guarantees a warehouse-to-warehouse timeline of 10 to 15 days for a trip between Europe to the US.
The Appeal Of A Sail-Powered Cargo Ship
The shipping industry is all about timetables, and at first glance it may seem that a fossil fuel-powered cargo ship could beat wind energy on speed any day of the week. However, the devil is in the details. As described by VELA, its 10-15 day timeline includes loading and unloading, as well as the days spent in transit. Those ship-to-shore operations could take more time for monster-sized cargo vessels, potentially tipping the advantage to the trimaran. The ability to visit secondary ports could also help the trimaran avoid bottlenecks at major ports.
“While the choice of propulsion plays a critical role in decarbonizing maritime transport, VELA recognizes that sustainability also depends on pre- and post-transport logistics,” the company emphasizes. VELA expects its trimaran fleet to beat conventional cargo ships on speed when the entire voyage from one warehouse to another is taken into account.
The cost difference would depend on the cargo. VELA anticipates that for pricier goods, any minor increase in shipping expenses would be negligible.
Though sailboats can’t compete with air freight on speed, VELA anticipates that its “free” wind energy will contribute to a substantial cost savings — up to five times lower than air freight.
Despite the time difference, practically zero-carbon shipping is a good fit for luxury brands that are hot on the trail of any angle to burnish their green cred. Shipping goods on wind-powered watercraft would enable luxury brands to stand out from the crowd and avoid the “flight-shaming” of air freight’s high carbon footprint.
VELA has taken notice. The company plans to focus on shipping services for luxury goods in general and French luxury goods in particular.
“The United States is the second largest export destination for French luxury products,” explains VELA co-founder Michael Fernandez-Ferri. “Moreover, the wind is plentiful and predictable in the North Atlantic.”
“We are very happy to be able to continue facilitating American and French culture exchange, but in a way that prioritizes the decarbonization of Franco-American trade as well,” Fernandez-Ferri adds.
More Renewable Energy At Sea
If all goes according to plan, VELA will launch its first trimaran in 2025, and whole a fleet of trimarans will travel between France and the US every nine days by 2028.
That’s good news for luxury brands and their customers. As for the rest of the shipping industry, wind energy is also making an appearance. Though not replacing fossil-fueled engines, wind energy can play a supporting role and save fuel.
The startup Norsepower, for example, has come up with a tubular wind harvesting device that can be retrofitted onto existing cargo ships. The company’s industry partners are also looking to purpose-build cargo ships with the aim of maximizing Norsepower’s technology (see more coverage here).
The French firm Airseas has also developed a wind harvesting device, in the form of a kite-like device that resembles a flying jib gone wild. As the name suggests, engineers from the leading aviation firm Airbus transferred the foundational technology from air to sea.
Another aircraft connection has surfaced from another French startup, Zéphyr & Borée, which is working on rigid sails based on the principles at play in glider aircraft wings.
Solar power is also beginning to make itself known at sea, though its role in cargo shipping is still up in the air. One problem to be solved is the space and weight taken up by solar panels.
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