Fuelling the shipping industry, what is the next step?
At the recent Marine Money conference in London, one issue hung in the air heavier than the scent of dollars. That was the other d-word, decarbonisation. From the floor, speaker after speaker talked of the need to change, the challenges of going green, the benefits of slashing emissions, and the need to somehow embrace new fuel options. The challenges were clearly laid down, but unfortunately, the mechanisms for achieving success were somewhat less apparent.
NO IS NOT AN ANSWER
All questions and not answers. What is clear is that the market will ultimately need a solution to decarbonisation issues. However, with so many options awash around the industry at the moment, there is no single fix apparent.
In the past things were simple. When sail gave way to coal, which gave way to oil. Then there were no real alternatives other than embracing the only technology in town. Moving forward means trying to place some kind of certainty, even though we lack a clear and agreed view of what the future fuelling of ships looks like.
It is a very bold owner indeed that can look twenty, even ten, years into the future and definitively set out what they think the fuel landscape will look like. How can anyone know when there is so much noise, distortion and clamour in the market? One can’t, it becomes about hope over experience, because no one yet has the data to make a decisive argument.
What we are seeing is the emphasis on all players to work together, play nicely and all find the right decisions. This seems hopeful in the extreme, and there are dangers of a fattened middle growing, in which companies hang onto oil as long as possible, and even then only switch to hydrocarbon derived propulsion. The great clean leap forward seems tantalisingly out of reach.
DECARBONISATION BELL CURVE
At the extreme ends of this decarbonisation bell curve, we see owners who will cause eyebrows to be raised in both good and bad ways. There will always be those who do the absolute minimum, and will only be compelled by regulation, and even then will oftentimes try to avoid or skirt it. They will use whatever they can cheaply power their vessels with, to make the most of whatever freight rates they can earn. They will not be compelled by green activists or sentiment, they will do whatever they can get away with, and perhaps even a little less if no one is watching, or if drones aren’t sniffing.
While conversely, we will see those companies who are compelled to act, by stakeholders, shareholders, by a desire to innovate and do great things. It is always the irony of the shipping industry that we have the best companies and the worst, all in the same marketplace. Which is perhaps where the answers sit.
No one can truly tell anyone yet (with any certainty) what the fuels of the future will be, certainly not in the medium term. So it will have to be the market that compels, it will be market-based measures that make things happen and take decarbonisation desires into reality.
Lest we forget, if you want things moved, then you move them on the ships you can access or afford. One only has to look at the surging box rates to see what happens when too many people want too many things moved…but when there are too few ships.
PROGRESS CAN STALL
Just last year (2021), a survey by law firm Watson, Farley & Williams of over five hundred shipping industry leaders found that fewer than a third of shipping operators plan to use any alternative to traditional bunker fuel or liquefied gas such as LNG or LPG in the next five years.
Which is in marked contrast to the noises coming out of financial markets, from insurers and even governments. It also runs contrary to the narrative that the public expects to hear. So why the paralysis? Well, because owners just do not know what to do.
There is a desperate need to find the carbon-neutral fuels needed, but there is still uncertainty, fear, and even despair at what, how, where, when…and how much. Get the bet wrong and you end up with a ship that can’t trade, and that is how companies go broke.
However, replacing heavy fuel oil is not an option but a necessity. So, with the question of what new fuel to use hanging like the Sword of Damocles over the head of the industry, the pressure is real, present and increasingly persistent. So, what are the options, what will work now, and what will work in the future?
THE RUNNERS AND RIDERS
There are inherent pros and cons with so many of the choices, but with the proviso that the status quo is not an option, then answers need to be found. The choices which still produce carbon need it to be captured, the sulphurous options need scrubbers too.
The gases need to be stored onboard despite taking up vast amounts of space (LNG, LPG, methanol and ethanol) and the dangerously corrosive (ammonia) needs to be contained. Batteries need to provide range, and the political and safety hot potato of nuclear will need some working through.
Even the long-term hopeful, hydrogen, appears to have a worrying greenhouse impact. A recent UK government study stated that increased use of hydrogen will potentially lead to leakage, and this will have a climate impact. The study found hydrogen to be twice as powerful a greenhouse gas as previously thought. While even the wind can be fickle, as history has long taught us.
Some are ready to roll out and are even ramping up bunkering capability, while others are still just small scale test sights, despite the fact the need is so pressing. So just what is a shipowner to do? Some are looking at dual fuel options, and Classification Societies are rapidly granting sign-off in yards with a host of such approaches. With Liquified Natural Gas a particular favourite. While even wind power is back in the mix, there are many innovations to harness nature for propulsion. Sails could yet prove to be an important part of the environmentally friendly shipping of the future.
NO SINGLE SOLUTION
To meet decarbonisation targets, shipping will need to pick a horse to back in a most complex and high-risk space. Though without really knowing the runners, riders, the course or even the hurdles to be jumped. Unfortunately, currently, no single fuel presents a complete solution. Which is frustrating and concerning in equal measure.
Even the “greener” derivatives of hydrocarbons do not have as clean a footprint as many demand. While the likes of hydrogen, ammonia and nuclear all provide major infrastructure challenges. We seem to be in the opposite situation from “build it and they will come”. When we’re talking marine future fuels, it seems a case of use it and maybe they’ll build it. Quite how businesses are meant to operate to that backdrop is anyone’s guess.
The scale of the change needed means that increasingly industry feels that it has to take something of a backseat, with the feeling that governments need to drive the change. The costs required to switch up and out are vast, and until an owner feels that they are safe in betting on the right fuel, then they are paralysed. What we are seeing is a form of hedging of fuel bets – the use of dual fuels, ancillary equipment, and even waiting as long as possible in the vain hope that regulators will blink. It seems that a modular approach will have to be used, with increasingly flexible engines, and fuel sources that can be swapped out, without rendering the vessel obsolete.
Alas, with climate change and the calls for decarbonisation gathering pace, the luxury of time is evaporating faster than some of the fuel options. Let us hope for the planet, and the shipping industry that the voices calling for change, solutions and ideas win out. Otherwise, shipping may be left further behind, and face the stick of regulation rather than the carrot of doing good business cleanly.
Intelligence, data and analysis are all vital in understanding what shipping is doing, and will ultimately do to solve the problems of decarbonisation. To find out how our experts at Geollect can assist, contact us using email@example.com or call us using +44 +44117 4406454 / +447944196707 /