Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Windjammers promise logistics boons

Commercially viable windjammer cargo ships, augmented by methane-powered engines, could be the answer to all green logisticians' prayers -- predictability on long-term freight costs. It would also deliver huge environmental benefits. The development is the brainchild of Northern Ireland-based B9 Shipping* who claim that their ships will derive 60% of their thrust from wind and the remainder from Rolls Royce spark injection engines powered by methane gas extracted from thousands of tons of food waste.

Compared with oil-burning ships, the B9 gasjammers will deliver competitive, predictable freight rates and equal performance, needing no bigger crews and ensuring optimal health and safety compliance. All sail control will be from the bridge and the masts will be over-engineered. But there are other financial inducements. B9 ships will accrue huge savings from fuel offsets and stand to generate significant income from the carbon trading opportunities. Shipping lines, however, should not break out too many champagne bottles because the technology, although proven and in use, is severely limited by ship sizes.

B9's market research has focused initially on developing a 3,000 dwt short-sea coastal vessel, small beer compared with the majority of much larger ships. Even so, there are 10,000 similar-sized vessels operating world wide so the potential for greener logistics is significant. A 3,000 dwt vessel, the Maltese Falcon, fitted with the Dyna-rig system, has been operating successfully for some time so the company is satisfied that this is the optimum size for immediate development. The initial primary market is dry bulk, particularly wood pellets for the production of carbon neutral heat and power. "This cargo," says director, Diane Gilpin, "runs on a liner route and enables us to demonstrate our technology whilst we have a chance to work with the logistics sector to develop ways of integrating workable, fossil fuel-free propulsion in the existing logistics systems." Their designers, however, already have 5,000 dwt versions on the drawing board.

Climate change concerns could also boost the company's case. Manufacturers are abandoning global supply chains for regional ones. Companies are increasingly looking closer to home for their components. This means that US or European operations are more likely to source from Mexico and Eastern Europe respectively than China, partly because energy is more costly and less plentifully available. Perhaps as much as 70% of a manufacturing company's carbon footprint can come from transport and other costs in the supply chain. But it is not only climate change that poses serious threats to the global supply chain. As the the Japanese tsunami in March showed, it is unwise to concentrate component sources in one, earthquake-prone country while relying on JIT deliveries. A similar, potential risk exists in the heavily industrialised province of Guangdong in south-east China, the home of much of the world's electrical sub assemblies and components. This region is prone to heavy flooding, as the recent June floods, the worst in 55 years, tragically showed and about which this column warned on April 25.

B9 Shipping is currently working with two separate global enterprises developing gasjammers specifically to meet their commercial needs in the immediate future. The first is a chemical tanker where existing oil burners have been forced to slow steam. This obviously slows up JIT delivery and so negatively impacts production costs. By adding a B9 ship the company effectively hastens the supply chain throughput by providing more tonnage whilst not adding any significant emission burden. The client is also comforted, knowing that the cargo price will remain far more stable than fossil-fuel powered ships.

The second client is a cruise company seeking to build relatively small, high-value cruise ships for their existing customers. The smaller, more intimate cruise offerings are hit harder on a per head basis by escalating fuel prices and since their offering is about 'intimacy' they cannot employ the economies of scale solution being used by much of the cruise shipping sector. By cutting their reliance on fossil fuels they can maintain their current prices and offer an enhanced product by promoting a truly 'green' cruise, for which the company sees significant future demand.

Healthier cruising promised

Cruise lines and the shipping industry in general, however, have another incentive to go 'green'. What, perhaps, few cruise passengers and seafarers realise is the risk to their health that diesel particulates, especially, pose not only to those on board but millions of people living close to busy coastal shipping lanes. Only recently have scientists been able to calculate the specific impact of ships' toxic emissions because their known carcinogenic emissions, like particulates and compounds of sulphur and oxygen, are also emitted by factories, motor vehicles and power plants.

The findings of the latest European research are disturbing. One European Commission study suggests that shipping pollutants are cutting several months off the life span of every European. The study lead author said the growth in international trade and cargo ships, many of which originate in China, would make that far worse. He predicts that by 2020 Britain's west coast will be so badly affected by shipping pollution that average life expectancy for people living in or near coastal towns would be cut by 20-30 months.

The current situation, which sees shipping spewing out more than 3% of global carbon, has been allowed to develop because shipping's international nature excludes it from most national laws controlling pollution. This means that 289 million tonnes of fuel burnt by the world's 100,000 cargo ships each year can be sourced from the cheapest, most contaminated sources. These may contain 2,000 times the levels of sulphur allowed in diesel fuels sold for cars, plus many heavy metals and other contaminants, a thought that should disturb cruise passengers when they are showered by soot particles and detect the stench of diesel inside and on deck, an experience this writer has had on several cruise ships. The fact is, very large engines in some ships can spew out the same levels of toxins as 50 million cars in a year and spread them for hundreds of miles on winds.

Renaissance for British shipbuilding?

B9 Shipping's efforts deserve support but not just from the shipping industry. Currently, the Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation is confined to land so that a UK-UK cargo moving by road using some biofuel attracts an incentive payment This does not apply to sea transport on a similar UK-UK route. The Department for Transport agrees with B9 Shipping's logic that encouraging a modal shift from road to sea, reducing road congestion, makes good sense but thinking is one thing, doing is another. Now is the time for Whitehall mandarins to get their fingers out by changing the legislation.

Such a sensible move would also deliver a palpable boost to British jobs, heralding, perhaps, a renaissance in British ship building in Belfast and northern England. The company anticipates a need for 50 ships by 2020 to give the biomass industry compliance with the 10% energy in transport target of the Renewable Energy Directive. Other uses for the ships are emerging in the rapidly-developing low carbon economy, including bio-fuels, recyclate and captured carbon destined for sequestration.

Over time, B9 Shipping anticipates further opportunities will arise to replace the 10,000 similar-sized coastal vessels operational across the world. The company will build its ships in the UK, thus helping to regenerate former shipbuilding cities. Sailors in these gasjammers will also be incentivised by being allowed to share in the returns of the company. "The more they work under sail, the less fuel we will need to use, and we would pass this saving on to them," explained Diane Gilpin. The romance of sail could return in the form of races in the fleet to outperform each other, redolent of the tea clipper days but without the fatalities.

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