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Solar Power Could Reinvent the Shipping Industry—If We Let It

The shipping industry is the world’s sixth-largest source of greenhouse gas pollution.

ByRachel NuwerNOVA NextNOVA Next
Solar Power Could Reinvent the Shipping Industry—If We Let It

During his days in the Royal Australian Navy, Greg Atkinson recalls looking up and seeing plumes of black exhaust, or black carbon, pouring from his ship’s funnel. “I’d just be sitting there—the sun would be shining, the wind blowing—and yet we were burning all this fuel,” he says. “I remember thinking, ‘There’s gotta be some way of using these other resources.’”

Decades after that initial observation, Atkinson’s life goal is to make such pollution-belching vessels a thing of the past. At Eco Marine Power , a Japan-based company the electrical engineer founded in 2010, Atkinson is creating rigid solar panel sails for use on large sea-faring vessels. The sails—which are as thin as cardboard and flexible like plastic—will harness the ample wind and solar energy of the open oceans, cutting back on fuel consumption. Ultimately, the technology could lower a vessel’s emissions by up to 10%—or around four tons of fuel saved per day for a large cargo ship.

“It seems crazy to me that we’ve got this massively powerful wind blowing over ships and we’re not doing anything with it,” he says. “Same with solar—it’s crazy.”

Around 100,000 large cargo ships regularly crisscross the world’s oceans, delivering cargo from point A to point B. In doing so, they burn through a staggering amount of fuel—around 250 million tons annually. There are clear real-world repercussions: the industry is the world’s sixth-largest source of man-made greenhouse gas emissions (at 800 million tons annually), and its pollution has been pegged to 60,000 cardiopulmonary and lung cancer deaths each year.

But until recently, shipping has largely remained out of sight and out of mind. Lacking any mandatory emissions regulations, company owners had little incentive to clean up their acts. Instead, most choose to power their ships with heavy fuel oil—the “dirtiest fuel imaginable,” Atkinson says, and also the cheapest.

That puts Eco Marine Power ahead of the curve. A committee of the International Maritime Organization (IMO), a United Nations agency that regulates shipping, has only just now—as of April 13—adopted a strategy to lower emissions from various types of vessels by at least 50 percent by the year 2050 (compared to where they stood in 2008). If shipping is to align itself with the standards of the Paris Agreement, it’ll have to decarbonize—by shifting to biofuels, batteries, or something else entirely.

Something, perhaps, like Eco Marine Power’s innovative solar-wind fix

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The Right Guy For the Job

Atkinson only became aware of the shipping industry’s pollution problem when he began researching green energy tech for an Australia-based investment firm he founded. As he dug deeper, he realized that he might be poised to help design a partial solution. He had ample experience in marine electrical engineering and automation from his days in the Navy, as well as expertise in telecoms and data management from his career afterwards. Additionally, he was gearing up for a doctorate in maritime engineering, with a focus on computational fluid dynamics. He was exactly the type of person who could fix the problem. The challenge, he realized, was too tantalizing to walk away from.

“I was supposed to be a passive investor, but after finding that nothing was happening in shipping, I veered off course,” he says. “I totally got dragged into this.”

After a difficult first round of fundraising—including capital Atkinson invested from his own company—Eco Marine Power began developing its renewable energy system, which has already been patented in Japan and the U.S. An integrated management and automation program controls the array of EnergySails on the deck, rotating each according to the direction of the Sun and wind. If winds become too intense, sails are automatically lowered, and then raised again when conditions improve. Solar energy collected from the panels is stored in 98% recyclable Furukawa batteries specially designed for cycle use and that can last 15 to 20 years.

The challenge, Atkinson realized, was too tantalizing to walk away from.

The system can be outfitted on basically any ship, Atkinson says, from massive freighters to passenger ferries, although it’s better suited for ones that do not travel above 18 knots. But while the company has sold its technologies to several clients, just two ships have signed on: one proof-of-concept vessel in Greece and another in Singapore, Eco Marine Power’s first commercial sale. For now, the Singapore ship’s one-kilowatt solar panel harnesses only enough energy to power lighting—but Atkinson says the product will be built up as the crew becomes more comfortable with it. “The whole system is a tool kit,” he says. “You can go just with solar, or some solar and some sails, or all sails, depending on the ship.”

Marine solar power array being installed on Blue Star Delos in October of 2014 as part of an integrated Aquarius Management & Automation System

That Eco Marine Power has just a handful of buyers so far is indicative of the industry’s attitude toward clean energy and reform. “When we spoke to people at shipping companies about using solar and wind, they just thought we were crazy,” Atkinson says. “We’d get comments like, ‘We don’t care about green technology because fuel cost isn’t a concern for us,’ or ‘We don’t have to do anything about this so why should we?’”

In one instance, a company did express interest in the technology early on, and had Atkinson perform an initial inspection of one of its vessels, which it often docked in Southeast Asia. The entire crew would disembark and stay in hotels, save for one man who would remain on board to monitor the ship. For that single man, the company would start the ship’s massive generator—just to power his television, fan and lights. “The biggest energy load was the AC used to keep the generator cool,” Atkinson said. Yet when he presented the company with a solar power solution, they balked. Burning fuel was cheaper for them on the near term, they said.

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An Upwind Battle

Eco Marine Power’s systems run at around $200,000 for solar panels and $500,000 for solar-paneled sails on a large ship. Companies typically will not see a return on their investment for five to eight years. More than a question of money, though, it’s industry culture—which tends to be highly conservative—that is the primary impediment to change. “In telecoms, you come out with a new product and there will be a queue of people trying to get it,” Atkinson says. “In shipping, it’s the opposite—no one wants to go first.”

Lately, though, this has begun to change. Environmentally-conscious companies that transfer goods by sea are starting to wake up to the realities of the pollution they indirectly cause, and they are pressuring their shipping partners to clean up their acts. “Maybe five years ago there was a bit of window dressing around this issue, but now I think people are taking it seriously,” Atkinson says.

It’s industry culture—which tends to be highly conservative—that is the primary impediment to change.

Eco Marine Power is not the only company striving to craft answers to such calls for change. Norsepower, a Finnish company, is developing its own bulk carrier sail , for example, while others are working on smart systems for monitoring ships’ performances and finding ways to save energy.

“Some big players are thinking about these concepts,” says Junji Ohta, director of the East Asia service unit at Wartsila in Finland, one of the world’s largest marine equipment producers. “The industry is starting to look at hybrid solutions and ways to optimize energy sources within the ship itself.”

Pollution-curbing rules like those announced earlier this month represent a major turn for the industry and seem to already be making a difference.

“Regulations are coming into force, and it’s time for people to start adapting to change,” says Captain Mohit Batra, regional director of commercial shipping for Eniram, a clean-tech software engineering company recently acquired by Wartsila. “That’s the bare truth of the industry.”

Ultimately, Atkinson’s goal is to see some form of renewable energy adopted on all ships. “Instead of filling up with oil, we could have ships powered by fuel cells and batteries, topped up with solar and wind,” he says. While a fully green solution is likely decades away, things do seem to be moving in the right direction. As Atkinson says, “I used to have to go out and contact ship owners, but now they are contacting us.”

Photo credit: Luke Price / (CC BY 2.0) , Eco Marine Power

Funding for this reporting is provided by the Ives Family Fund.

Funding for NOVA Next is provided by the Eleanor and Howard Morgan Family Foundation.

Major funding for NOVA is provided by the David H. Koch Fund for Science, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and PBS viewers. Additional funding is provided by the NOVA Science Trust.