The shipping industry has seen good times over the past few decades, as international trade has grown and grown. However, it is not all plain sailing, as CO2 emissions have similarly grown and grown, increasing by 77% between 1990 and 2015.
With climate change an ever more important issue, the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) announced In April 2018 that by 2020 all global shipping must adhere to stricter sulphur emission limits, as well as an aim to, “reduce the total annual GHG emissions by at least 50% by 2050 compared to 2008.”
The full impact of this decision remains to be seen, but initial fears are focused on cost.
However, alongside the major cost issue of converting many ship engines to be biofuel compatible, as well as uncertainty over biofuel prices and supplies. A recent report by S&P Global Platts noted the challenge of coordinating the many parts of an international sector, with one typical extract from the report stating, “Biofuels for the shipping sector is a technical and economic opportunity for biofuel producers, just as biofuels meet the coming fuel regulations within the sector. However, larger scale introduction of biofuels requires a directed effort between engine manufacturers, biofuel suppliers, ship owners and infrastructure (port) operators.”
The decision to pay for engines that are biofuel compatible, would certainly be a gamble given the uncertainty over upscaling biofuel supplies and biofuels ability to adjust between cold and warm waters. As a recent report by the bioenergy industry body, the IEA, states, “Considering that merchant vessels remain operational for more than 30 years, ship operators would be taking a big risk using a fuel that is not yet guaranteed to work with the installed engines for such a long period of time.”
SWOT analysis on the use of biofuels in shipping conducted by the IEA.
Different biofuels also contain different strengths and weaknesses, as expertly explained on the PlatformBiobrandstoffen website.
Despite these pessimistic positions and long-term issues, the biofuel industry is progressing in the shipping sector.
For instance, Fulcrum BioEnergy is converting municipal solid waste intended for landfill into transportation fuels. While noted mostly for their development of bio-jetfuel, the company is also producing diesel and syncrude that is being lined up for use by US government ships.
The US Navy bunkering at sea.
Elsewhere, Biofuels Digest reports on, “Goodfuels' announcement with Boskalis Nederland for a long-term partnership aimed at a 35% reduction in the CO2 emitted by the fleet and equipment in the Netherlands.” As well as Goodfuels’ recent Memorandum of Understanding with DHL Global Forwarding, to make it the, “… first to offer its customers the opportunity to select next generation marine biofuels rather than fossil fuels for their transports by sea.”
Meanwhile, Enerkem has teamed up with the Port of Rotterdam, Akzo Nobel, and Air Liquide, in turning their innovative ‘waste to energy’ methanol for use in the maritime industry. The agreement is for a “Municipal Solid Waste-to-methanol plant at the port, where currently more than 2 million metric tons of MSW are imported annually.”
Similarly, the advanced biofuels company Gevo is making headway with sales of the biofuel butanol, especially with smaller vessels. This is due to the advantages it has over bio-ethanol, in that it performs better with rubber tubing, as well as in humid conditions (as are often found at sea).
But despite these in-roads, the maritime industry needs to examine the bigger picture of biofuel use. Perhaps even looking beyond the costs involved. On paper, oil is cheaper and, as a known quantity, offers more certainty. However, the continued burning of fossil fuels has an indirect cost, with the industry needing to ‘do its bit’ towards lessening climate change impact.
The introduction of the IMO agreement is forcing the hand of shipbuilders and transporters to ‘pay-up’ in order to meet new emissions standards. As the industry journal Ship Technology observes, “While news of the agreement was welcomed by industry associations, analysts say achieving its ambitious targets will not be possible without transitioning from heavy fuel oils (the main fuel used by deep sea vessels) to low and zero-carbon alternatives.”
This is an opinion supported by Claus Felby, professor of biomass and bioenergy at the University of Copenhagen, who believes that, “The mandatory targets set up by the IMO require a change in fuels and maybe also in propulsion systems.”
With the shipping industry and major maritime players supporting the introduction of emissions standards (despite knowing the challenges that it will create), it perhaps matters little that ship-fuel buyers are continuing to look only at price. Ultimately, the new rules will drive the use of biofuels at sea ever more into the mainstream.
It will not be the end of Heavy Fuel Oil, but when it comes to powering ships, we are witnessing a sea-change towards biofuel.
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