The maritime shipping industry is undergoing a transformation as it endeavours to achieve decarbonisation. Despite its position as the most efficient mode of global goods transportation, maritime shipping remains a substantial contributor to the emission of greenhouse gases (GHGs). Consequently, the industry faces considerable challenges in realising its goal of lowering GHG emissions from ships to less than 50% by 2050.
In pursuit of their climate targets, the shipping industry has implemented several energy-saving strategies, such as friction-reducing coatings for hulls, the adoption of slower vessel speeds, as well as the exploration of innovative carbon-cutting technologies and renewable energy in shipping. One such alternative energy source under consideration is wind power. Being virtually unlimited, wind is seen as a vital supplement to other energy sources. This article discusses in further detail what wind energy is and how it can help the maritime industry achieve its climate goals.
What is Wind Energy?
The term’ wind energy’ refers to the power acquired from converting into mechanical power, the kinetic energy generated by the air in motion. Windmills and wind turbines capture this energy and turn it into electricity with the use of the aerodynamic force coming from their rotor blades. As a readily available, clean, free, and unlimited resource, wind produces sustainable electricity. Because of this, investments in the development of this renewable energy in shipping are increasing.
Wind as an alternative energy source is driven to play a significant role in decarbonising the maritime industry. Some shipping companies are already examining the viability of employing vessels that are exclusively powered by wind. However, experts caution that the full transition to wind-powered fleets will require considerable time and effort. Nevertheless, wind energy is presently being effectively integrated as a supplementary power source, alongside conventional methods, to minimise fuel consumption and reduce greenhouse gas emissions in shipping operations.
Offshore Wind Farms and Their Potential Benefit to Maritime Operations
An offshore wind farm is a power plant containing all the facilities required to capture wind power, convert it into electricity, and supply it to the central electricity network. The primary components of an offshore wind farm are the substations, the cables, and the wind turbines. The turbines are considered the most essential component. Wind turbines are generators that transform wind power into electric power. They are usually installed by wind turbine installation ships.
For economic reasons, such as minimising construction and maintenance expenses, many wind turbines are simultaneously installed in a single location. The electric power generated by the wind turbines is transmitted through cable arrangements under the seafloor to the substation that stabilises its voltage. The final step of the process involves having the electric power exported to an onshore substation that adds it to the principal electric grid.
During the operations and maintenance (O&M) stage in the lifecycle of an offshore wind farm, operators depend heavily on offshore vessels for transporting equipment and crew between the wind farm and the shore. These vital marine operations are necessary to deliver both unplanned and planned maintenance that ensures the continuous operation of the wind turbines. However, most logistics vessels utilised for O&M consume fossil fuels and are responsible for about 284 kt CO2e of emissions per year.
Nonetheless, offshore wind farms have the potential to lead by example within the maritime sector. Offshore wind farms are established at sea, and as such, they have less effect on people and nature. Furthermore, they are a reliable energy source that does not consume a million gallons of water or emit GHGs. The fast decarbonisation of the industry’s logistics vessels can be the springboard that broadens maritime decarbonisation and creates a flourishing clean maritime sector.
Electrification is one sustainable alternative to gas-fuelled vessels. There are already electric vessels that operate successfully in other countries, such as Norway’s Bastø Electric Ferry. However, the problem is that electrification is relatively new for vessels in harsher environments and those that head further out to sea. The energy density, size, and weight of their batteries restrict their range and usefulness.
That said, offshore wind farms have the potential to become practical refuelling stations that solve two major problems: the size of batteries necessary for replacing conventional generating sets that use fossil fuel; and the distances to sail with no possibility of recharging for long trips. Essentially, offshore wind farms can provide a clean recharging option at sea. They can enable vessels to access electricity without having to dock at ports. This could then minimise GHG emissions and enhance port air quality.
The Future of Wind-Powered Ships
Aside from taking advantage of offshore wind farms and offshore wind ships, the maritime industry can also amp up its decarbonisation efforts by exploring the use of wind-powered ships in 2024. Most modern vessels burn fossil fuels to propel themselves. In doing so, these vessels emit GHGs like carbon dioxide (CO2).
The alarming escalation of human-caused GHG emissions from shipping poses a substantial environmental concern. Notably, shipping is accountable for approximately 3% of global GHG emissions, with the emitted CO2 being absorbed by the ocean and contributing to the process known as “ocean acidification.” This process alters the chemical composition of seawater, adversely affecting marine life.
To mitigate the environmental impact of shipping, some companies are turning to renewable energy sources, primarily exploring the possibilities of solar and wind power for ship operations. For instance, Sailcargo, a Costa Rican company, is currently developing a wind-propelled vessel designed to transport up to 250 tons of goods. Although this capacity may seem modest compared to that of large container ships, the construction of wind-powered vessels serves to foster enthusiasm for wind energy within the shipping industry.
Interestingly, wind power was the primary propulsion method used by early cargo ships. However, upon the arrival of steam and diesel engines that enabled more dependable and faster trade, cargo ships began to switch to the more productive alternative. At present, some shipping companies remain hesitant to revert to wind propulsion. Nevertheless, as regulatory restrictions tighten and with health costs and carbon taxes looking to increase the price of fossil fuels, the majority of the maritime industry is actively seeking more economical and cleaner alternatives, such as the use of wind-powered cargo ships in 2024.
In Sweden, specifically, Wallenius Marine AB is currently conducting trials on a sail-driven vessel called Oceanbird, which is expected to commence service on Atlantic routes in 2024. With a length of 200 meters and the capacity to carry 7,000 automobiles, Oceanbird could potentially be the tallest sailing ship ever constructed. Equipped with wing sails that tower 105 meters above the water, the vessel will incorporate backup engines. Oceanbird aims to achieve a remarkable 90% reduction in GHG emissions compared to a conventional ship fuelled by bunker fuel.
Undoubtedly, wind energy, alongside solar power and green fuels, presents a promising prospect for the maritime sector, offering a free, abundant, and globally accessible energy source. While the pick-up rate from industry players has been slow, experts believe that the interest seems to be increasing for wind-powered ships. In 2024, it can be expected that around 25 huge vessels will operate with some type of wind-assisted technology. This number is expected to even double in the years to come.
In the face of mounting environmental crises arising from greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, industries with substantial impact must prioritise collaborative efforts to mitigate these harmful effects. As a key player in global trade, the maritime trade bears a crucial responsibility to redouble its commitment to decarbonisation by proactively exploring and implementing alternative energy sources, such as solar and wind power, for powering ships.
As governments and shipping companies worldwide increasingly grasp the urgent imperative of maritime decarbonisation, it is reasonable to anticipate a market landscape in which cargo ships propelled by solar and wind power take centre stage in the years ahead. Notably, the rise of wind-powered cargo ships in 2024 is something that one can look forward to.
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