In its bid to combat climate-polluting emissions, the maritime industry has adopted all manner of cutting-edge technologies, from hi-tech alternative fuels to new and increasingly advanced ship engines. But the latest advancements in the sector have seen innovators turn the dial back to rely on a trusted ancient resource – wind energy.
While seafarers first harnessed the wind for maritime locomotion in 3,500 BC, the industry turned away from wind power in favor of the trusty steam engine in the mid-1900s.
But with the growing imperative for decisive action on global emissions goals, innovators and vessel owners are turning once more to the sustainable zero-carbon resource that is wind energy.
According to the International Windship Association, there were 25 commercial vessels already outfitted with wind-focused innovations as of August 2022. That number is expected to nearly double to 49 by the end of 2023. Some of the largest names in the industry have already commissioned, received, or started trialing ships outfitted with wind-harnessing technology. In December 2021, wind-propulsion company Airseas completed an automated kite installation on the vessel Ville de Bordeaux operated by Louis Dreyfus Armateurs. Likewise, American commodity trader Cargill Inc. announced this year that it will trial two new rigid wind sails on its 751-foot carrier charter.
It is hoped that these innovations would help propel the industry towards its goal to cut emissions by 50% of 2008 levels by 2050. But can wind energy provide the thrust needed to reach this goal? Perhaps, especially if there is wide adoption of the technology alongside other climate-saving improvements. But I think it remains to be seen whether adoption at that scale can occur.
Technology being adapted for shift to net-zero in maritime
According to the International Windship Association, there are about a dozen wind-propulsion technologies currently on the market. These innovations employ various methods that harness wind power to propel ships, either alone or in conjunction with an engine.
We’ve seen kites, such as the one deployed by Airseas on the ro-ro vessel Ville de Bordeaux, that help pull ships along on wind currents. The automated kite can be deployed at the push of a button and can be stowed away when not in use. Airseas says the technology can help cut fuel costs and emissions by 20% on average or up to 10,000 metric tons of carbon yearly. Aiming to trial the technology, Japanese shipping giant Kawasaki Kisen Kaisha placed orders to purchase and install five of the parafoil kites in July this year.
Another technology on the market employs rotor sails that propel ships by means of a “pressure differential.” The system, offered by Finland-based Norsepower Oy and UK-based Anemoi, collects energy when wind meets a spinning rotor sail, leading airflow to increase on one end and increase on the other. This change in airflow speed creates a pressure difference and provides a “lift force” that propels the ship. Maersk trialed the technology in 2018 and reported that they were able to cut fuel consumption by over 8%.
Can wind energy create a clean future for shipping?
The maritime industry has a serious pollution problem on its hands, and the problem has only grown in recent times. Today, maritime accounts for roughly 3% of global emissions – or one billion metric tons of CO2 yearly.
Amid global turbulence and disruptions to business-as-usual scenarios, the industry has had to prolong its reliance on so-called dirty fuels like heavy oil to survive through the upheaval. Likewise, considering the lengthy runway that alternative fuels are expected to require before they’re ready for broad adoption, it’s clear that the industry must seek other means for emissions reductions.
Wind energy could potentially help wean maritime off its reliance on fossil fuels. Even as an accompaniment to more traditional propulsion systems, I believe it can at least reduce fuel consumption – and maybe even replace fossil fuels entirely someday.
by Doğan Erbek and STF Team