At Sea

Casting off oil

ms roald amundsen Hurtigruten electric hybrid cruise ship
Breaking the ice for hybrid ships. Source: Hurtigruten

The maiden voyage of the MS Roald Amundsen will be a trailblazing one. When it sets off from Chile in October 2018, the polar cruise ship owned by Norway’s Hurtigruten will have several cabinets of lithium ion batteries on board to support its diesel engines and reduce overall emissions by 20 percent. The hybrid ship will be able to run on only electricity for 30 minutes at a time, the first time time a passenger vessel achieves such a feat.

The ship and its 530 passengers will be able to glide through majestic Antarctic icebergs in complete silence, with no noise to startle the whales and no soot to leave a gray pall on the white ice. The shipping industry is performing a U-turn, following the lead of the aviation sector and automotive industry: It is moving away from oil  toward battery power. “The future of shipping will no doubt be quiet and emission-free,” said Daniel Skjeldam, head of Hurtigruten.

Dozens of ships are under construction with at least hybrid drives, from local car ferries to large ocean liners. As in the car sector, the technology already exists, but the task now is to refine it and increase operating ranges. What is indisputable is that German companies will benefit from the emerging market.

Analysts at market research consultancy IDTechEx predict that global sales of hybrid and fully electric ships will grow to $20 billion by 2027. Companies such as Siemens and the Swedish-Swiss engineering group ABB are supplying the electrical drive systems. The batteries are coming from manufacturers such as Canada’s Corvusenergy, and a number of innovative builders are designing the ships. Hurtigruten’s MS Roald Amundsen and MS Fridtjof Nansen, to follow in 2019, were designed by Rolls-Royce and are being built by Kleven Maritime of Norway.

The change is being driven by environmental problems in the shipping sector, one of the dirtiest. Maritime traffic is increasing every year, and most ships are fueled by heavy oil, which contains poisonous sulfur. The shipping industry is responsible for 15 percent of global nitrogen oxide emissions and 2.2 percent of carbon dioxide emissions, clogging the air of port cities such as Hamburg.

“The future of shipping will no doubt be quiet and emission-free.”

Daniel Skjeldam, CEO of Norway's Hurtigruten

The rules are being tightened: After 2020, only fuel containing a maximum of 0.5 percent sulfur may be used, a major decrease from the current limit of 3.5 percent. Since cleaner fuels are also more expensive, electricity is becoming increasingly attractive.

Despite being an oil-producing country, Norway taken the lead in the switch to electric motors. The oil price slump in recent years made it clear to the Norwegians that they cannot depend on this resource forever. Electricity is cheaper than fuel, and in Norway it comes from clean hydroelectric energy. “Three years ago, barely anyone in the industry was talking about batteries,” said Arne Ove Rodstol, a manager at the shipbuilder Ulstein. “Now everyone is talking about them.”

A law requiring new ferries be emission-neutral is further pushing Norway to focus on electric and hybrid technologies. Experts at Norwegian environmental organization Bellona say that although fully electric ferries would cost €384 million ($448 million) more to build than their diesel equivalents, they would cost €77 million less per year to operate. Currently 180 ferries transport 20 million cars annually in Norway; according to Bellona, 84 could profitably switch to battery power and another 43 to hybrid systems.

Commuters have been using a fully electric ferry in the Sognefjord, Norway’s longest fjord, since 2015. The Siemens-powered 120-car ferry Ampere makes a 6-kilometer journey 34 times a day, sparing a million liters of diesel per year. Operator Fjord1 wants to introduce two more electric ferries on other routes in early 2018.

With electric ferries a proven success, shipbuilders are starting to think bigger. Ulstein is building the world’s largest passenger ship with a hybrid drive for cruise and shipping company Color Line, starting with a shuttle service in southern Norway in 2019. “The ship can travel purely on electricity for one hour,” Mr. Rodstol said.

The transition to electric power is expected to take much longer for ships than for cars, but the industry is nevertheless hopeful that even container ships can then be powered by batteries. The Norwegian fertilizer group Yara and the technology group Kongsberg are already building a freight ship that will operate entirely on electricity. The ship, which will go into service in 2018, is expected to be able to navigate autonomously from 2020.

Andreas Munn is the editor for innovation at WirtschaftsWoche, a sister publication of Handelsblatt Global. Claire Corlett and Grace Dobush adapted this into English for Handelsblatt Global. To contact the author:

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