The idea of LNG as a bridge fuel should not deter shipowners from making the right choices today, writes Society for Gas as a Marine Fuel (SGMF) general manager Mark Bell
Like any community, the LNG as a marine fuel sector has developed its own language. In the early days it was all chickens and eggs as the sector grappled with the early investments needed from shipowners and fuel suppliers. More recently, phrases like ‘bridge’ and ‘transition’ have become common as people attempt to place LNG in the context of the wider decarbonisation of shipping. But in their rush for a pithy phrase, there is a chance that advocates of LNG may have misdirected the very people they are trying to reach.
It is fair to say that LNG is not a perfect solution. It is undoubtedly a good option until better fuels come along. It outperforms all other current options in environmental terms, with dramatic improvements in emissions of local air pollutants as well significant reductions in CO2. Those benefits are not enough to reach the targeted 50% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions across the global fleet by 2050. And the escape of the highly potent greenhouse gas methane needs to be addressed. But LNG is a good first step and the only compliant step available to shipowners today.
But the idea of a bridge can be problematic. At virtual Gas Fest 2020, a series of online discussions hosted by SGMF in November 2020, the need for clear, positive and proactive communication was highlighted. A group representing shipowners, engine developers, fuel suppliers and class societies cut through the confusion that has often clouded the perception of LNG as a marine fuel.
That confusion has real consequences. Shipowners need certainty over a long period before they invest in ships. The image of LNG as ‘only’ a bridge fuel, combined with a widespread view of zero-carbon fuels as being closer to viability than they really are, could paralyse investment decisions. That in turn could mean that shipowners do not take steps to reduce emissions today, and thus miss future environmental targets.
The ‘bridge’ metaphor has perhaps failed to convey any helpful specifics about how these future steps are linked to the use of LNG today. The history of shipping is really a succession of ‘bridge fuels’, from oars to sails to steam to diesel. Although methane is also a hydrocarbon, its significant emissions benefits mean LNG could be a useful bridge fuel a long time yet. Other non-carbon carriers such as nitrogen (in ammonia), or even pure hydrogen, will require costly and lengthy investment.
How long the bridge will be is another important and unanswered question. Appreciating the longevity of LNG and the wait for other alternatives is critical for shipowners when considering whether to build gas-fuelled ships now or opt straight for carbon-neutral fuels.
Another misguided impression is that LNG is only a short-term solution. Placed in the wider context of shipping’s decarbonisation, LNG has both a foundational role for other fuels and its own long-term future. The spread of gas as a marine fuel – the infrastructure, the vessels, the safety measures and the international regulations – has laid a framework for other future fuels to follow. Methanol, which was finally included alongside LNG in the IGF Code in late 2020, is a case in point.
LNG frameworks are designed with other low flashpoint fuels in mind, although they remain relatively distant prospects. SGMF exists to ensure the safe and sustainable use of any gaseous marine fuel, not just LNG. Much of the work by SGMF and its members is to ensure that best practice is applied, but also that emissions performance and practical considerations are understood.
But LNG is not just a forerunner. It also has a future in its own right. Use of LNG as fuel together with continuous technology improvements will gradually improve shipping’s emissions impact. The use of biogas or synthetic methane, first as a drop-in fuel and eventually replacing fossil LNG, will only improve the well-to-wake footprint for methane. With enough availability, vessels could exceed IMO 2050 targets through the progressive use of bridged methane – natural, then biological, then synthetic. Fossil LNG is the vital first step in reducing carbon for shipping.
This view of LNG as a trailblazer for alternative fuels and part of the long-term solution could help to dispel the ‘us versus them’ tone that can emerge when advocates promote their future fuel preferences. Too often LNG is pitched against alternatives. But if shipowners view LNG as fundamental to the emissions reduction journey, rather than a stage to be skipped over, there is a better chance that we will reach the emissions targets on the other side of the bridge.
Interested in LNG as a marine fuel? Join the discussion at Riviera’s LNG Bunkering & Refuelling, Americas Conference.