Green fuels: A balancing act

Just how far is the maritime industry coming along with green progress? Green energy has been the point of contention and commitment for some years. At the 108th session of the IMO Maritime Safety Committee, which concluded in end May, a report gave a summary list of fuels and technologies that could support the reduction of greenhouse gases (GHG) emissions from ships, as well as an assessment of technical aspects, hazards, and risks to ship or shoreside for each of the listed fuels and technologies. 

Sanjay Verma, director of decarbonization solutions, Wärtsilä. Photo credit: Wärtsilä

In an interview with Maritime Fairtrade, Sanjay Verma, director of decarbonization solutions at Wärtsilä, a manufacturing company, observed that achieving green progress is crucial because shipping is the “engine room” of the global economy as it transports more than 80 percent of world trade. Therefore, there “lies the challenge of meeting the increasing demand for capacity while aligning with sustainability goals”, he added.

Moreover, time is of the essence as in just 25 years, which is the lifespan of a single vessel, shipping must eliminate its entire contribution of carbon emission, given the goal of reaching net zero emission by 2050. The pressure point is tangible and pressing in on the industry from all sides. 

Another key trend Verma foresees is changes in vessel design, operation and power generation. “These will be needed to comply with new regulations and to meet the growing demand for sustainable shipping.” Nevertheless, the biggest challenge and opportunity for the industry will always still be sustainable fuels. 

“Due to the uncertainty around which future fuel is likely to become widespread, both in its availability and cost effectiveness, owners and operators must play a balancing act between long-term viability and immediate decarbonization in the here and now,” Verma elaborated. He noted that forward-thinkers in the industry are already adopting engines capable of running on these future fuels. “There is also an increasingly large portion of fuel-flexible vessels being ordered as newbuilds and for retrofit.” 

Verma cautioned against complacency though in this aspect. “There is still (a lot) of work to do to help most of the fleet implement immediate decarbonization solutions.” Investing fully in a low-carbon or zero-carbon fuel is regarded as one of the fastest methods to decarbonization. However, “operators are understandably hesitant to go all in on one fuel considering the possible risks such as fuel availability along routes,” he said. 

A practical solution will be adopting flexible options to best balance short-term and long-term needs. “Investing in fuel-flexible options will mitigate market fluctuations, and infrastructure and supply risks to enable operators to utilize whichever fuel is most viable at that moment on a certain route,” said Verma. What this does is provide operators with the flexibility to mitigate any risks that would come with betting on a single-fuel source solution.    

In the long-term, Verma opined that “vessels will be future-proofed against more stringent regulations, while simultaneously (being) able to easily convert to whichever frontrunner fuel comes out on top in the next decade and beyond.”

This transformation and pivot are direly necessary though. “As the most cost-effective way to move large volumes of goods over long distances, shipping has long been the backbone of international trade,” Verma said. Despite its efficiency, it also has significant environmental impacts, accounting for between two and three percent of global emissions – which is equivalent to the annual emissions of Japan. “Without action, these emissions could rise by around 45 percent by 2050, even as emissions from other sectors shrink.” 

To slow down this alarming trend, new global regulations have set a clear destination for shipping – net-zero emissions by mid-century. “Efficiency measures can get us part of the way, but sustainable fuels will be essential to fully decarbonize shipping”, because most ship engines burn either heavy marine fuel-oil or marine gas-oil, which produces not only carbon dioxide, but also other pollutants. 

In addition, it is challenging to eliminate GHG emissions through full electrification, for example, because many ships must consume large amounts of energy over long distances without the chance to refuel. 

Shipping companies have an arduous task in decarbonizing. In order to fulfill its commitments, the industry is enhancing the utilization of technology and digitalization, and this includes costs, implementation, feasibility, operational capabilities and skill-set compatibility. Indeed, Verma affirmed this transition. “Amid regulatory pressure to decarbonize, digital technologies are playing an important role in supporting the industry with curbing its emissions.” 

One of the key trends that shipping companies should consider, and eventually adopt, is digital twins, which can be useful and effective for digitalization. 

“Shipping has, in recent years, recognized the benefits of digital twinning to help make R&D more realistic through the creation of a digital version of an existing vessel. This gives owners and operators the ability to use simulated, but still near-real conditions to test different scenarios without risk or safety compromises.” 

Digital twins, Verma elaborated, can be used for optimizing hull and engines in order to increase a vessel’s lifespan and lower maintenance costs. “Digital twins can also help improve safety, such as by comparing actual roll angles to the ship stability model.”

Another tool is port call optimization. “As ship sizes and global traffic grow, safety and well-coordinated operations have become a major challenge at ports. Every year, over two million port calls are coordinated individually, more than 18 billion US dollars’ worth of excess fuel is unnecessarily burnt at anchorage, resulting in 160 million tons of CO2.” 

Time and fuel are wasted on waiting for a port slot. Port call optimization tools alleviate this issue by enabling just-in-time arrivals, and facilitate accurate arrival times between ports and ships, which enable vessels to adjust speed and fuel to achieve just-in-time arrival automatically. Speeding up port calls would then cut fuel use and emissions while improving fleet and port utilization. “This not only improves the efficiency but also improves safety in congested anchorage.”

Thirdly, voyage optimization tools, which harness data, can also improve fleet operations. “For example, intelligent machine learning can be used to analyze onboard data to plan the most efficient route for vessels, saving both fuel and money for ship operators and owners.” Verma added that performance management systems can also use onboard data to determine how equipment is performing – such as knowing the optimum time for hull cleaning, which is another proven way to reduce fuel costs.  

As with every solution or improvement comes their set of problems and risks. For technology and digitalization, it would be cyber threats. The necessity to build and strengthen cyber resilience must go hand-in-hand and simultaneously. Verma opined that due to the nature of the maritime industry, shipping has not been as vulnerable to cyber-attacks as other industries. “However, the convergence of OT (operational technology) with IT (information technology) is resulting in an escalation of cybersecurity threats with hacktivists increasingly targeting OT systems in recent years.”

Thus, with this escalation, it has accelerated awareness, all the way from classification societies right through to the more traditional maritime players. “This is (aided) by the fact that maritime is a very heavily-regulated industry which means the relevant bodies, organizations and agencies have the authority and ability to put in place requirements which encourage safe and secure shipping, which is operationally resilient to cyber risks.” 

Despite the promising advancement and progress of digital tools, Verma once again cautioned against the industry becoming complacent. “A unique challenge in maritime cyber security is the number of players involved before a vessel sets sail. No single party in the process can make a vessel secure without working with others.” It does not matter how secure a piece of equipment is. It still bears a substantial risk if the ecosystem around it is designed sloppily without firm and sound security in mind. “Hence, this means collaboration between yards, owners, operators, and OEMs will be crucial as the industry becomes more and more connected to the internet.”

However, when it comes down to it, manpower and a competent workforce are what operationalize technology. Unfortunately, that is another frontier which faces obstacles. “Maritime currently faces an enormous skills shortage, with crew numbers continuing to decline. The number of incoming seafarers is also not rising fast enough, and action must be taken now for maritime to continue to function, especially with the industry under increasing pressure to decarbonize.”

For example, although sustainable fuels will play an integral role in the maritime industry’s goal of achieving net-zero shipping by 2050, however, a fundamental role of this transition requires crews to be upskilled to handle these new and alternative fuels. 

Nevertheless, the sector is rising up to meet these needs. “To support these training needs, we are increasingly seeing the maritime industry embrace virtual reality (VR) and mixed reality training methods, which is ushering in a new era of learning and development within the industry.” That is because physical training can be expensive, time consuming, and if carried out onboard, potentially high-risk. 

“Virtual training can provide a range of benefits; learners can experience simulated versions of life at sea, operating in near-real conditions to see how they may operate in a range of different scenarios.” Remote services will continue to increase, borne out of proven solutions, such as cloud simulation and VR, which will increase accessibility and reduce the need for physical attendance.

Photo credit: iStock/ Tanankorn Pilong

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