Finding the fuel for the ferries of the future

Michael Grey considers the options available to ferry operators as they make their vessels greener

Finding the fuel for the ferries of the future
Stena Line is building its first fully electric vessel, which will be named Stena Elektra

By Michael Grey |

The ferry sector has a well-deserved reputation for dealing with economic, technical and regulatory challenges. The existing fleet of ships that serve European routes have operated through huge increases in fuel price and specification, political changes and economic problems, such as the removal of duty-free sales which, on some routes, accounted to a third of revenues. Now, the sector must cope with the unknowns of a zero-carbon future, which will doubtless be accelerated by whatever may emerge from the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP 26) in Glasgow, Scotland, in November 2021. No longer can the shipping industry escape as a ‘special case’. Political leaders of all complexions are responding to the demands of the environmental activists whose views might previously have been considered extreme but are now firmly within the political mainstream. 

It is a particular dilemma for a shipping sector that has a record of carefully maintaining ships for decades longer than in other parts of the maritime industry. A 25-year-old tanker is a rarity, a bulk carrier of such an age overdue for recycling. However, a well-maintained European ferry of such a vintage is one that is considered as ‘nicely run in’. These ships are built to last and maintained to the highest standards. 

For a ferry operator contemplating new tonnage in today’s background of regulatory uncertainty, there are very real concerns about such investments. While the industry has managed to cope with the regulatory changes that have emerged from the International Maritime Organization in the past, the agenda is now being driven by a new set of players whose sole preoccupation is to achieve zero-carbon targets on a proposed timescale that will be far tighter than that presently agreed. Old ideas about environmental regulations not adversely affecting world trade are irrelevant. The traditional concept of ‘grandfather clauses’ protecting existing ships will almost certainly not survive.  

Is it possible to design ferry tonnage that can anticipate regulatory unknowns of such an extent? The sector already has environmental prescriptions in the pipeline to which it must adapt, such as the bewildering Energy Efficiency Existing Ship Index guidance for using power limitations to reduce emissions. These are notably unfriendly to ferry operations and their rigid schedules.  

It is maybe unsurprising that among the record number of ships that are designed to be fuelled by LNG, there are several large ferries. And, while LNG may be regarded as a bridge between oil fuel and the clean green fuels of the future, its main attraction must be its known performance characteristics and an available bunkering infrastructure. There may be concern that its environmental credentials are tainted by its petroleum antecedents and that its use may not survive long term once the rush to carbon neutrality gathers momentum, but unlike all greener alternatives, LNG is available now and there are engines capable of using it.  

There are still too many unknowns about other fuel alternatives that might prove attractive to ferry operators. Battery designs might be improving apace, but electric power remains largely restricted to short-haul operations, although battery/hybrid solutions may prove attractive to some. It is worth considering that the route flexibility enjoyed by the diesel-driven ferry might be severely constrained by an electric power plant.  

Other fuel alternatives remain very much in the unknown future. ‘Green’ ammonia derived from sustainable sources has attracted some attention from several very large shipping companies and engine manufacturers, but these are early days, and a convincing safety case must be made for its handling as a toxic substance. Stena Line is already trialling methanol and various small-scale operations are using biofuels. Hydrogen, if it can be produced by greener electrolysis, has some adherents, although not enough is yet known about its characteristics in service. The only certainty is that the environmental constraints of the present, will become much, much tighter in future. On issues of practicality, availability and cost, ferry operators, like everyone else in an industry on the receiving end from regulation, remain in the dark.

This article was first published in the Autumn/Winter issue of Cruise & Ferry Review. All information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed. 

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