Once the infrastructure is in place, hydrogen fuel cells will become the dominant form of zero-emission propulsion for big, high-speed vessels
If Norway can do it, perhaps the rest of the world can too. In 2021, shipping group Norled will launch a sleek-looking fuel-cell-powered fast ferry to herald an era of emission-free sailing in its fjords and harbours.
The first country in the world to set a zero-emission deadline as early as 2026, Norway has effectively cast a vote for hydrogen fuel-cell-driven vessels as it reacts to pressure from environmental lobby groups that are increasingly forcing governments to respond to climate concerns. “The country is taking a step further in the maritime green shift that has global repercussions,” says Marius Holm, head of environmental group Zero.
To date, zero-emission shipping in the region’s protected areas has relied overwhelmingly on battery-powered electric propulsion. Fjord1 for example, is waiting on the delivery by Havyard of a seven-strong fleet of battery-electric ferries.
But the call for zero-emission sailing is not confined to Norway’s protected areas. With the 2026 deadline under their belt, authorities are now pushing for pollution-free vessels everywhere in the country, even on the coastline, as a precursor of things to come. Similarly, Alaska’s visible emissions standards are heading in the same direction, by limiting the ‘opacity’ of all marine vessels within three miles of the coastline. Elsewhere, the number of emission control areas (ECAs) are likely to increase, notably in Central America, the Mediterranean and Black Seas, Japan, South Korea and Australia.
Consequently, hydrogen-powered propulsion now appears to be a viable long-term option in the pursuit of zero-emission sailing, especially for the deep-sea fleet. As American fuel-cell pioneer Ballard points out, hydrogen fuel cells are already being adopted en masse by heavy-duty land vehicles such as buses, trucks, forklifts and passenger trains.
“Fuel cells will play a key role in helping marine industries address greenhouse gas emissions on the water and in ports,” predicts Ballard market manager Alan Mace. He adds that due to their lower power density and heavier weight “Batteries are a zero-emission power solution for smaller vessels that operate with short-duty cycles, [such as] small passenger ferries and lake service boats.”
But Havyard is looking to deep-sea shipping. In early November 2019 the group announced it was moving towards a pilot project for a hydrogen system., stating: “[With Norwegian Electric Systems] we are now conducting pioneering work on the development of a system that will become the biggest of its kind for ships.”
Havyard has already completed the first step of the project and in late 2019 was entering the approval phase, working with Linde Engineering as tank supplier and PowerCell Sweden – which has a background in the automotive industry – as the manufacturer of the all-important fuel cells. Gaining approvals will be far from routine though, mainly because the regulations are still under development, for instance in the case of safe storage and control barriers for cryogenic hydrogen on board ships.
Still, Norway could be well ahead of the game. “The system we are developing is designed in modules and can be installed both in newbuilds and retrofitted in existing ships,” reports Havyard’s head of research and development Kristian Steinsvik. “In this way we will contribute to the development of large-scale vessels that can sail emission-free over long distances, or [achieve] significant emission cuts from vessels that use hybrid propulsion systems.”
Despite the obvious virtues of hydrogen systems, infrastructure remains a key problem, as Ballard’s Mr Mace concedes: “Before operators can power their vessels using fuel cells, hydrogen supply and fuelling infrastructure needs to be further developed.”
By some estimates, hydrogen infrastructure is a decade behind that of LNG, so the catch-up phase will need to be rapid.