How ferry operators can go green with a ‘can-do’ attitude

Michael Grey considers how the industry can meet the target of becoming carbon neutral by 2050
How ferry operators can go green with a ‘can-do’ attitude
ForSea’s fully electric ferry Aurora is one of the largest emission-free ferries in the world

By Michael Gray |

This article was first published in the Autumn/Winter 2019 issue of International Cruise & Ferry Review. All information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed.

Brexit, the costs of complying with emission rules, doubts about the future of marine fuels and the ultimate demand to become carbon neutral are just some of the current challenges facing those operating ferry services. Ferries tend to be long-living ships and it is quite possible that the new vessels of today will still be operational around halfway through the 21st century when carbon dioxide emissions are supposed to be well under control and zero-emission ships have become an industry commitment. However, they face an uncertain future in a world of growing environmental demands and rapid technical changes to both ship and propulsion systems.

The ferry sector has proved adaptable in the past and can certainly be the same going forward. But what sort of policies must ferry operators implement to grow their business and keep customers onboard? It is easy to be sceptical about the green agenda. However, there seems to be no doubt that, whatever the cost, it’s beneficial for ferry operators to invest in greater sustainability – and ensure their customers know about it. Whether that customer is a major freight user who wants to be labelled as environmentally sound, or just a car or foot passenger who has embraced current attitudes, there is clearly an economic benefit to being publicly identified as a green transport operator.

A positive environmental profile is something that can provide a genuine marketing advantage against competition, whether from other ferry operators or other modes of transport. While some may wait until the environmental regime is tightened by regulation, there is arguably an advantage in voluntarily aligning with the direction of travel, despite the uncertainties. It is difficult to see public opinion going in any other direction, and the sensitive ferry operator will go with the flow.

Unlike deep-sea shipping, which faces a colossal challenge in developing green propulsion systems and compliant fuels suitable for very large ships engaged in global trading, bunkering infrastructures for short-range ferries is simpler to put into place. It is no coincidence that it is the ferry sector where vessels are being equipped with hybrid, electric and battery systems.

Similarly, now that LNG is increasingly being referred to as an interim solution, it’s reasonable to suppose that the ferry sector will see the first developments in the full commercial use of hydrogen fuel cells, biofuels and post-petroleum fuel technology. Ferries will provide a means for scientists and engineers to translate their research into practical applications, scaling solutions up from the experimental to the technically feasible and commercially viable.

It’s quite a responsibility for ferry companies to decide to commit to new fuels or machinery systems that are unproven at sea. This is where supportive governments encouraging research into new fuels and marine propulsion systems will help. However, it’s a very big jump and one that must be taken quickly if the 2050 zero-emission targets are to be achieved. Practicality suggests that there will likely still be large numbers of conventionally powered vessels in operation halfway through the century, so it has been suggested that, by 2030, a sizeable number of advanced emission-free and zero-carbon ships should also be in operation. How is this going to be achieved in reality?

Hydrogen would seem to be the favourite prospect for a non-carbon fuel, although it comes with its own massive problems and will only fulfil the criteria if it can be produced by renewable electricity at a non-prohibitive price. Construction has already started on offshore wind installations that are said to be dedicated to hydrogen production, so perhaps we can already see the germ of a hydrogen supply infrastructure that could fuel ferry services. However, the fuel requires more storage space onboard ships and there are concerns about its volatility, so there are safety issues that must be faced.

Shore power supplies are a given in many developed nation ports and more ports are stepping up to the plate, so cold ironing will hopefully be standard on every ferry berth in the near future; or at least certainly in those ports where there is already sensitivity to noise and air pollution. Battery development is rapid and there are already sizeable Norwegian craft (more expedition ships than strictly ferries) capable of running on battery power in sensitive waters. A large hybrid ferry that is capable of emission-free operation as she approaches land is already within sight and, dependent upon the route, more all-electric operations are likely to become viable as batteries improve. Battery life, however, remains an issue with a deteriorating performance over time requiring expensive replacements.

Biofuels, which come with major caveats about their sustainability, could also provide a route for ferry operators; a strategy that would enable current types of diesel power plants to operate without radical changes. Questions of cost and availability in a world that increasingly questions the diversion of potential food crops into fuel, are likely to become more strident too.

There are experiments being undertaken with methanol, and even ammonia has been mooted as a future fuel, but in reality there are no easy answers facing ferry operators seeking a clear strategy for newbuilds. Much will depend on the resources ploughed into research and, as the industry has made clear, it will be beyond the resources of the shipping industry itself to devise machinery, fuels and ships that will satisfy the demand for carbon-free operations. It is also important that the word ‘affordable’ is never forgotten, as ferry operators know that their customers may have other transportation choices and will rarely opt for the most expensive mode. But ferry operators represent a ‘can-do’ sector, which has risen to many different challenges in the past, so they are unlikely to be beaten by these new environmental demands.

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