Electrification: Driving the next wave of change
Electrical propulsion can help the marine industry to tackle the perennial challenges of emissions, maintenance costs and operational flexibility, writes Andy McKeran, general manager, GE’s Marine Solutions.
The industrial revolution saw—and was largely driven by—one of the greatest inventions of the 20th century: the combustion engine. Until recently, it was the power and propulsion behind almost the entire marine ecosystem. However, technological advances, coupled with a more challenging economic environment and the need to reduce emissions, are now changing the way we operate as an industry. The marine ecosystem is embracing newer electrical solutions, in a bid to become cleaner, smarter and more efficient.
Electric propulsion systems often run on significantly less power than traditional combustion engines, which can result in fuel savings of up to 5-10% for offshore support vessels. Power take off/power take in (PTO/PTI) solutions can also greatly improve fuel efficiency by harnessing excess mechanical energy from a vessel’s propulsion shaft. Similarly, podded propulsion systems provide a modern electric solution which can further generate fuel efficiency savings of up to 10% compared to traditional mechanical systems.
Developments within energy storage are also enabling marine operators to optimise energy use. With variable operating profiles and fluctuating loads, having the ability to store excess energy onboard (or connect to grid infrastructure to enable the rapid recharging of batteries onboard), ensures that energy usage can be fully optimised. Additional power is available onboard once back out at sea, alongside the ability for engine-off operation in port.
As in almost all industries, there is a need to achieve more with less for marine organisations. Smart vessel operators are realising the value that electrical solutions bring in terms of increasing asset reliability and vessel longevity to this end.
Because electrical systems have fewer moving parts, they produce less friction and therefore less heat than combustion engines. This means there is less chance of mechanical issues occuring; and when they do, resolving the issue is often much easier. This all makes for increased reliability and therefore, reduced maintenance costs. GE’s induction-based propulsion motor technology, for example, has one of the lowest maintenance costs compared to alternative solutions, reducing opex for fleet operators.
Electrical propulsion systems also enable ship operators to carry out fast and efficient upgrades, greatly contributing to overall vessel longevity. The modular design of GE’s electrical propulsion systems means that individual parts such as the drive, motor, generator or shaft line can be replaced or upgraded without having to remove the entire system. That means less maintenance costs and time spent in dry-dock.
A ship is at its most profitable while at sea carrying maximum cargo or passengers or carrying out operations. Thanks to its smaller footprint and flexibility in installation of machinery compared to combustion engines, GE’s electric propulsion systems can save up to 5% for potential cargo space, allowing shipowners to make better, more profitable use of vessel space.
This flexibility in vessel layout is unlocking new opportunities to improve overall vessel efficiency from the outset. Smart software such as GE’s Vessel Performance Analyzer can optimise vessel design by providing real-time comparisons of performance and estimated annual operational expenditures based on different electrical configurations. In a recent design investigation in GE’s SeaLab, careful system design helped reduce the installed power requirement by up to 25% compared to the baseline design, meaning the vessel requires fewer or smaller engines, which can be translated into capex savings, reduced fuel costs and increased payload within the hull.
Electrical propulsion systems can also enhance performance while ensuring much smoother and quieter operations. GE’s patented anti-vibration and waveform smoothing technology means a vessel’s engines are much quieter than with traditional systems. The new Type 26 Global Combat Ships will be powered by GE’s electrical power and propulsion systems. These systems have been selected specifically to meet the demanding and varied operational requirements of navy ships, but in particular the equipment will meet a tough shock rating requirement and provide low noise performance, both of which are critical in defense operations.
The average ship’s appetite for power has also increased dramatically due to the evolution of increasingly complex, but essential, smart technology and on-board systems. Unlike traditional mechanical solutions, electrical solutions are now enabling shipowners to create their own microgrids onboard to meet a vessel’s total power needs and enhance overall performance. Whether through power generation technology, intelligent power management and distribution or remote power control, electrification is enabling tremendous savings associated with offshore energy projects, storage and re-use of power; as well as the production of additional power to support smarter systems onboard a ship.
The need to improve efficiency, reduce operational expenditures and seize revenue-adding opportunities is only going to increase for the foreseeable future. Forward-thinking marine organizations will be already exploring the exciting technology now as a way to not only meet, but beat these evolving challenges. The marine industry is in the middle of the most exciting period of transformation since the industrial era, and electrification is at its heart.
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