Tote and MAN celebrate ME-GI milestone
On the third in-service anniversary of MAN Energy Solutions’ ME-GI dual-fuel, two-stroke marine engine, US ship owner and pioneering engine user Tote Inc reflects on an LNG landmark.
The pristine waters of Puerto Rico became an unlikely testing ground for a new engine technology in October 2015, when Tote Inc’s boxship Isla Bella became the first newbuild ship (outside the LNG carrier segment) to deploy dual-fuel, two-stroke engine technology. Along with MAN Energy Solutions, developer of the LNG-burning ME-GI engine series, Tote had become a pioneer in the use of gas as a marine fuel.
Three years later, Isla Bella and her sister Perla del Caribe – put into service in February 2016 – are trading the liner service between Jacksonville and San Juan in Puerto Rico as reliably as any other conventional vessel. The ships, which also use dual-fuelled auxiliary engines and are therefore run almost entirely on LNG – including hotel load at port and only excluding manoeuvring in harbour – could have presented an overwhelming technical challenge. But according to Peter Keller, executive vice president, Tote Inc, the transition for LNG operations has been seamless.
“The ships haven’t missed a stroke, week in week out to Puerto Rico,” he says. “They operate on time and on schedule, they are very clean and they provide environmental benefits.”
As always with new technology, there have been teething problems. The telemetry involved in monitoring a complicated and innovative system – including cryogenic tanks, fuel gas supply systems and gas valve trains – meant that some calibration was needed. But even in the first year of operation the ships ran on gas for 85% and, even during bunkering operations, there has not been a single safety issue. For Keller, that is testament to proper preparation and rigorous partnership with MAN and other stakeholders.
“Of course there were issues,” he recalls. “For the first year and a half, we had a MAN PrimeServ representative on the ship 50-60% of the time. We understand the breakthroughs that need to take place as you put those things into service and we’re very positive about the relationship we’ve developed with MAN over the years.
“From the very beginning we were joint at the hip on the technical realities of what the ME-GI meant, what LNG meant and how you had to integrate the systems. That was really important and kept us in good stead through the whole process.”
PREPARATION AND PLANNING
Tote’s preparation included designating its four chief engineers before the ships were built. Those engineers spent time with MAN in Copenhagen and, when it came to building the ships at General Dynamics NASSCO yard, were designated as inspectors. Training – through SIU and AMO as labour providers was another important focus.
Another crucial relationship was with the regulators – in the case of Tote, the US Coast Guard, for whom the idea of LNG bunkering was a new proposition. Since the vessels have come into service the two ships have had several more USCG officials onboard, helping to develop a range of regulations including the crucial simultaneous operations (simops) rules governing the loading and unloading of cargo while bunkering.
“As this was new for us, so was it for them,” says Keller. “We developed very close ties with the Coast Guard in Washington as well as Jacksonville. We knew that they had to be comfortable with everything that we were doing.”
In the end, Tote had so many meetings with USCG that officials asked them not to come in any more, so familiar were they with the company’s plan. “And that’s what we wanted,” Keller says.
As the project enters its fourth year, Tote is making some important changes. Bunkering in Jacksonville – until now delivered by truck (actually 25 trucks at a time) via a specially designed manifold – is now performed by an automated barge, cutting the time required for refuelling from five to three hours. It is a complicated piece of equipment boasting 2,500 input/output channels, more than most full-scale gas carriers. But the level of monitoring this enables shows just how Tote has managed to build trust with regulators.
The company also plans to retrofit two Orca-class ships, plying the route up to Alaska, for dual-fuel operation in the future. The project will enable Tote to deploy a few key lessons from its experience on the first, newbuild LNG ships.
“When you’re dealing with natural gas a safety culture is important,” says Keller. “It’s cryogenic and you don’t want to spill it. I think a single vendor solution is also critical; you don’t want to many interfaces. Welding and piping, the way the gas moves around inside the ship, is also really important. And the big issue for us is the relationship with the regulator and class – having them inside of everything you do every minute of the day.”
According to Keller, the Orca project – originally planned to be newbuild dual-fuel vessels before the conversion option was settled on – gave Tote an opportunity to revisit fuel choices. A few years on from 2015, there are more niche fuels on the market – including ethane, methanol and LPG - many of which are already compatible with MAN engines. Again, LNG came out on top.
“Safety is the number one priority, and some of the other alternative fuels around represent more of a challenge,” Keller says. “Number two is availability, then compatibility, sustainability and what is known or not known about these fuels. We have no issues going forward with MAN on the technology side, but would we also want to learn with a fuel that no-one had ever used before? With LNG we knew that people had been sailing with it for 40 years. In fact, one of the naval architects behind the El Paso gas carrier was our consultant on the design of our ships.”
For Keller and Tote, the rationale for choosing LNG remains the same as it was three years ago. A key factor – and one that Keller believes is often misunderstood – is the commercial proposition. The value that LNG can provide, in an operation such as Tote’s, is price predictability – a luxury that many ship owners must crave as the sulphur regulations of 2020 approach, with all their expected impact on bunker pricing.
“When you contract on a longer-term basis as we can do, the price of LNG is pretty stable over time,” Keller notes. “We inspired the building of LNG reliquefication plant near our facilities in Tacoma and Jacksonville. With the contracting that we did to inspire those plants we have a relatively fixed reservation fee, we have a relatively fixed cost on a barge and the only fluctuation we have on fuel cost is basically the Henry Hub, which is minimal.
“So I have a pretty good idea of what my fuel costs are going to be for the next ten years. But when you look at where sulphur-compliant fuel is going to be, who knows? We know that the cost of our LNG will remain relatively stable at a level that today is quite competitive with HFO.”
Finally, Keller is convinced that the environmental benefits of LNG remain unbeatable. While admitting that it is not going to be the single answer to IMO’s greenhouse gas ambitions, with a CO2 reduction in the range of 15-20%, he believes this should not stop shipping from taking advantage of the dramatic benefits LNG offers on a local level. Dramatic reductions in sulphur and particulate emissions are chief among these, while also guaranteeing that the pristine waters of Puerto Rico and Alaska are not polluted in the event of a fuel leak.
The rapidly developing regulatory landscape and the busy timetable for Tote’s vessels were hard to reconcile, says Keller. “These ships operate 51 weeks a year, and we take them out of service for a drydock every three years. Apart from that they have to make those voyages, so we don’t have a lot of time for retrofits as environmental regulations came up.
“Trying to project 30 years out what the environmental demands would be was a real concern. We knew that 2020 was coming and that particulate matter would appear on IMO’s radar, and we knew that LNG was the only viable solution to reducing them.”
The shifting attitudes of business partners – not only Tote’s progressive owners but also customers – was also becoming an important factor. It is more so today, says Keller.
“A few years ago, if I went into a meeting with the CEO of a big box retailer with an environmental message, I’d be thrown out. Now, I’d be thrown out if I didn’t have one.”
After laying the path for the commercial use of LNG as a marine fuel, Keller – now also president of the SEA/LNG consortium – is surprised that uptake of gas has been so slow. But he expects to welcome more converts as the business and environmental cases for LNG continue to converge.
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