How renewables can solve shipping’s need for climate friendly fuel

A joint effort between companies within the maritime and wind turbine industry can create the solution that can supply the world fleet with a climate friendly marine fuel – a marine fuel which does not release any carbon dioxides, sulfur oxides or soot particles.

May 10 2019

It seems too good to be true, but in fact it is nothing revolutionary. It will still be the good old trusted traditional combustion engine, but with a new electro fuel. An electro fuel that, due to the recent price reduction of electricity from wind turbines and solar power is competitive with fossil fuel when we include the climate cost.

The high demand for cheap climate friendly fuel for the shipping industry could push the wind turbine industry further into industrialization and scale up to actual mass production. This will be the last part of the puzzle to produce the CO2-free electro fuel at a competitive cost level.

Creating a clean and safe marine fuel

Renewable electricity from wind turbines and/or solar power will run the process of making a green electro fuel. A safe and handleable green electro fuel can be created when hydrogen is coupled with nitrogen, resulting in ammonia, which can be used as fuel in an ordinary combustion diesel/marine engine with only a few modifications. Ammonia combustion emits only water and air, so no NOX, SOX or CO2 are released into the atmosphere.

Using ammonia has several advantages compared to hydrogen and other carbon fuels. Ammonia is already produced in huge quantities for fertilizer – but today mainly using fossil natural gas releasing a large amount of CO2. Thus, the industry already has the knowledge and experience in handling ammonia. Through the large reefer fleet, we also have a great part of the necessary maritime regulation in place.

On the other hand, the energy density of ammonia is only half compared with diesel bunker fuel. Therefore, it requires twice the tank-volume to make the same nautical distance reach. But this is indeed manageable for ships.

Disruptive market change

When the focus for the wind turbines is to produce green fuel and not electricity for consumers, it is possible to place the wind turbines where the wind resources are optimal, where we have lots of space and no people. Locations that fulfill this may be found in the North Sea, around Patagonia and in the Arctic regions. Here we also have countries like Greenland and Iceland with huge water and geothermic power sources.

When the wind turbines do not need to be linked to the public electrical grid, it can save a great part of the expensive electrical infrastructure that is linked to the modern wind turbines. A modern offshore wind farm has a cost split of 30% for the wind turbine, 30% for offshore foundation and 40% for the electrical infrastructure, such as high voltage subsea cables and high voltage offshore substation. Thus, there are large savings to be gained when shifting from production of electricity into production of electro fuel.

The missing link

The missing link in order to close the cost gap between fossil fuels and electro fuel is the mass production and industrialization of the wind turbine industry. With the amount of electro fuel needed for the shipping industry as a demand driver, true industrial scale wind power will become a reality.

The price of offshore wind has already been cut in half over the last 5 years, but as mentioned above, we still have many measures which could cut costs. On top of the cost reduction in electrical infrastructure, the industry has identified savings in civil infrastructure which could also halve the price of offshore jacket foundations, for instance.

Achieving the IMO climate strategy

The IMO goal for at least a 50% reduction in carbon emissions from shipping could come within reach well before 2050 simply by switching to ammonia as marine fuel. Until the scale of the wind power industry is in place, the switch to 100% green ammonia fuel could be bridged by using ammonia produced with the help of natural gas and using carbon capture storage. This process produces the so called “blue ammonia”, which could bridge the gap until we have established a 100% “green ammonia” supply chain based on 100% renewable energy, using water and air to produce the ammonia.

Another stepping stone toward 100% decarbonization could be a mixture of ammonia and low sulfur marine diesel in increasing rations – 70%/30% or 90/10% – until we have established a supply chain driven by 100% renewable energy ammonia and large enough to fuel the world shipping fleet.

Wind turbine boom needed

The authors of this article are working within the wind turbine industry and look forward to making this a reality. If we use the global Maersk shipping fleet as an example it will require roughly 50 gigawatts of wind turbines to convert the Maersk fleet to green fuel. The combined capacity of offshore wind turbines in Europe in 2019 was roughly 20 gigawatts. To put that into perspective, we will need a substantial increase in the amount of installed wind turbines to supply the Maersk fleet alone.

Collaboration between ships and wind turbines

It will be this potentially large amount of wind turbines that will foster the industrialization and mass production that will lower the cost of energy from wind turbines making the carbon- and sulfur-free marine fuel affordable for the shipping fleet in the near future. The shipping fleet, together with wind turbines, will show the way for a carbon-free fuel for the future, thereby solving a major part of the global warming challenge.

An industry group including MAN Energy Solutions and Siemens Gamesa Renewable Energy are currently in the process of establishing the needed situation which can make the above happen. As of today there are already 3000 MAN B&W engines running which could be converted to run on ammonia.

The views expressed in this Insight are those of the author alone and not necessarily those of the Global Maritime Forum. Excerpts may be published with reference to the Global Maritime Forum.

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