Electrification and the just-in-time jigsaw
Digitalisation and hybrid propulsion are the enablers that will make just-in-time sailing and all its emissions and cost-cutting benefits possible, writes The Motorship editor Gavin Lipsith.
The world’s cargo fleet must do better. Like a lazy schoolboy it spends too much time idling. For the rapidly evolving shipping sector (and, teachers may suggest, for some schoolboys) electrification could be part of the solution.
According to a recent study of automatic identification data by classification society DNV GL, the global merchant fleet spends around half of its time stationary at port or at anchor awaiting assignment. For some ships (oil tankers on the spot market awaiting a charter, for example) it is more, for others (such as tightly scheduled container ships on fixed trades) less. On average the IMO-regulated, international merchant fleet consumes around 15% of its fuel when it is not moving.
There is considerable incentive to improve these figures, not least to reduce fuel consumption and hence emissions. Calculations by consultancy TNO based on the Port of Rotterdam suggest that cutting ships’ time at port by 12 hours each (by making them slow down for the last 12 hours of their voyage) could slash greenhouse gas emissions from ships at the port by 35%. Container ships, the biggest consumers of fuel and the biggest polluters, could trim their fuel bills by around 4% if they slowed down to arrive in ports half a day later – an important cost saving in a difficult market as well as eliminating around 134,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions each year.
Slowing down ships for the last 12 hours of their journey should be achievable, but today ships receive information about their berths just two hours before arrival. Lack of visibility on the departure of the ship currently at berth is the main reason – ports, ships and port service providers involved in cargo operations, bunkering and provisioning exchange very little information until their tasks are nearly completed.
The result is that ships spend a good deal of time waiting to find out when they can berth. The problem borders on the bizarre. “We are in a rush to wait,” says Stefan Wiik, vice president, Wärtsilä Marine Solutions. “We speed across the ocean only to sit at anchor waiting for a berth to become available.”
Improvements would be eminently achievable even with today’s technology, but port regulations often hinder matters, sometimes limiting direct communication between ships and the port. Vessel traffic systems at many ports need updating too; many are unable to transmit beyond the 30nm range of VHF radios, so could not give information in time for ships to alter their speed appropriately even if ports did have greater visibility of departure times.
Other challenges are more intractable. According to IMO’s Global Industry Alliance to Support Low-Carbon Shipping, around 70% of bulk carriers and tankers are contractually prevented from reducing speeds even if they wanted to slow steam into port. Berthing window data can also contain commercially sensitive information. Explaining to charterers why it makes sense to sail slower will be perhaps the biggest obstacle to just-in-time sailing.
Even if ships could sail straight into a berth, there are technical challenges. For example, the speeds required to arrive in time might be too slow to allow operators to sail at optimal load points of their engines, costing more in maintenance and fuel consumption. Responding to this concern may provide a business case for electrification that has until now been missing for the merchant fleet.
One of the biggest benefits of hybrid propulsion is that when engines generate either too much or too little power, batteries can either store the excess energy by charging or provide the extra power needed at high loads. This means that engines can be run constantly at their optimum load. If the batteries are fully charged when a ship needs to operate at low load, such as when manoeuvring in port or when slowing down to reach port just in time, the vessel can use only battery power until they reach a pre-set minimum charge point.
The long-sighted vision of several big marine technology companies – including but not limited to Wärtsilä, Kongsberg and ABB – puts just-in-time shipping at the intersection of digitalisation and hybridisation: digitalisation eventually giving us an instant, network-wide picture where ships need to be and when; hybridisation ensuring that ships have the flexibility to get where they are needed in the most efficient way possible.
Of these elements, there is little doubt that the hybridisation of deep-sea going merchant ships remains the most contentious. There are few references for batteries on big ships today, although some believe there are reasons why it makes sense: notably the un-optimised running of auxiliary engines and the elimination of black-out risk. Perhaps the efficiency batteries could bring to just-in-time sailing could be an added argument for their adoption.
Eliminating waste from the shipping network, not just ships themselves, will be key to delivering a more efficient business model for shipping – a model that may even make batteries a palatable prospect for deep-sea ship owners. And as IMO considers measures to reach its ambitious greenhouse gas reduction targets, just-in-time shipping cannot come a moment too soon.
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