With emissions standards for the world’s sea-going fleet tightening seemingly by the month, Selwyn Parker considers the business case for zero-emission propulsion
The global maritime fleet consumes 370M metric tonnes of bunker fuel a year, with a proportionate amount of pollutants. That is why a growing number of jurisdictions are gold-plating the international maritime authorities’ regulations on emissions by enforcing shorter deadlines for compliance, issuing penalties for non-compliance and, in some cases, providing discounts to environmentally suitable vessels.
By way of example, by 2026, Norway will ban all pollutants from its fjords, making them the world’s first zero-emission zone on water. Since these heritage fjords are popular with cruise ships, that will obviously necessitate pollution-free power among the passenger fleet and hasten the development of greenhouse gas (GHG)-free propulsion.
On the other side of the Atlantic, the Port of Los Angeles Environmental Ship Index provides financial incentives to shipowners whose vessels comply with low- and zero-emission standards. The port has run a clean-air action plan for more than a decade, aimed mainly at ships which are the main culprits.
The State of Alaska bases its regulations on how clearly ships can be seen from the shore. Under its Visible Emissions Standards, no marine vessel can emit pollutants that reduce its visibility by more than 20% within three miles of the coastline.
From a regulatory standpoint, IMO and the European Maritime Safety Agency both aim for 50% cuts in CO2 emissions by 2050, with IMO recently mandating the complete elimination of emissions by the end of the century. It is also drawing up regulations to govern the use of fuel-cell technology.
Aside from the pressure of tougher regulations, analysts are confident that shipowners will reap financial rewards from clean fuel in terms of operating costs, albeit over long term. As classification society DNV GL explained, the overall efficiency from fuel to propeller will be slightly higher for fuel cells than for combustion engines.
The society adds however, that this benefit is conditional on the following milestones being reached:
Once achieved however, it notes that fuel cells “may require less maintenance than conventional combustion engines and turbines.”
Furthermore, it seems likely that hydrogen will be a cheaper source of fuel in the long run than existing alternatives, a huge attraction for shipowners and operators buying from a maritime fuel sector worth US$98Bn a year. In theory, the bunkering arguments favour hydrogen over existing fuels as well.
Of course, the initial capital outlay is likely to be significant. According to DNV GL, current installation costs hover between US$3,000 and US$4,500 per kW of installed electrical power.
But costs are already falling. By 2022, installation costs could drop by up to US$1,000 per kW, according to DNV GL, making them competitive with modern diesel engine installations.
Meantime, research continues on polymer electrolyte membrane (PEM) fuel cells, a type of fuel cell already popular in the research labs of the automotive industry.
“The reason PEM cells are dramatically cheaper than other fuel-cell types is the automotive industry’s massive investment in this technology over the past 15 to 20 years,” explained DNV GL. “While still too expensive for the car market, the cost of PEM fuel-cells has dropped to a level that is attractive for ship applications.”
It seems far more likely than not that with this kind of investment from big players in both the shipping and private car markets, it is more a case of when, not if, this power source becomes commonplace.