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6 ways container vessel companies are reducing their environmental impact

Under growing pressure from regulators, the shipping industry is working to increase sustainability while maintaining profitability. Here’s how ship owners are adapting.

Under growing pressure from regulators, the shipping industry is working to increase sustainability while maintaining profitability. Here’s how ship owners are adapting.

As the ambitious emissions targets set by the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) for 2030 and 2050 draw nearer, container shipping companies are considering how to make the best investment to reduce the environmental impact of their vessels. Here are six of the top strategies, container shipping companies and third-party managers are using to improve the sustainability of their operations.

1. Modifying the existing fleet

Cargo ships are a major investment and they have a lifespan of 30-40 years, so scrapping existing vessels to meet new regulatory requirements isn’t a viable option. Modifications on the other hand, although viable, are expensive. Ship owners are keeping a close eye on new developments in digitalisation, fuel types, onboard systems, and onshore infrastructure to make the best decisions about how to modify existing vessels to become more efficient and sustainable. 

“As a company, we are carrying out design-specific studies to assist our esteemed partners – ship owners – in selecting the optimum combinations for their existing and new building tonnage. Cost impact for such modifications is higher for existing ships, so the selection process must be considered and well gauged,” says Harald Klein, Chief Operating Officer, Dry Ships Division, Anglo-Eastern. 

The IMO’s sulphur cap, which went into effect in January, spurred a round of retrofits of exhaust gas cleaning systems. The increasing digitalization of the industry is also encouraging upgrades of navigation systems to keep ships at sea longer.

2. Increasing container capacity

Container ships burn the majority of the fuel in the maritime industry in part due to faster speeds than other types of vessels, especially passenger ships, cruise liners, or tankers. Yet, container shipping is still by far the most energy-efficient way of transporting cargo globally on a large scale.  

The more cargo a vessel can carry in a single trip, the higher the efficiency of the supply chain. To increase efficiency, the shipping segment is working to optimise onboard cargo capacity.

For newbuilds, this can be addressed in the design phase with a detailed analysis of the cargo profile, taking into consideration container sizes, likely routes, and weight range as well as the cargo handling system.

3. Exploring future fuels 

To meet the requirements of the IMO2020 sulphur cap, Hapag-Lloyd became the first maritime company to launch a program to retrofit a container ship vessel, Sajir, of 15,000 TEU to run on LNG, which is significantly cleaner than heavy fuel oil.  

Retrofitting Sajir is an unpreceded pilot project that hopes of paving the way for future vessels of that size to transition to more eco-friendly fuels. 

Even though vessels running entirely on LNG will help meet the IMO2030 targets, it won’t be enough to reach the requirements for 2050.  

“To have an impact on the environment we need to change the merchant fleet and get away from fossil fuel,” says Matthias Becker, Managing Director, Wärtsilä Germany.

Ship owners and third-party managers are exploring sustainable fuels such as those made from hydrogen or ammonia, which produce zero carbon emissions.

“The process of transition towards the ambitious target set for 2050 has already started, as has the search for alternative fuel,” says Klein. “The focus on CO2, methane slip, volatile organic compounds (VOC) and hazardous air pollutants (HAPs) is steadily intensifying.” 

Managing the future of fuel types is no easy task. Predicting the scale, cost, and global availability of future fuels is like “looking into a crystal ball,” says Richard von Berlepsch, Managing Director, Fleet, at Hapag-Lloyd. Companies will have to work together with partners across the industry to determine the best way forward.

 “We set ourselves quite ambitious goals on which we are working on together with IMO, the European Union (EU) and all relevant shipping associations to find solutions,” von Berlepsch says. 

4. Installing adaptable engines

Choosing which type of engines to install is another tricky decision for many ship owners. With fuel technology evolving every day and uncertainty of availability of zero carbon fuels in the future, ship owners must weigh the short- and long-term benefits of engine types. 

Wärtsilä has a range of dual-fuel engines that can run on LNG or marine diesel fuel now and be used with future fuels when they become available. 

Bernhard Schulte Shipmanagement (BSM) is engaging with engine manufactures and ship designers working on newbuilds to explore modular engine rooms and fuel storage construction that “would allow existing engines to operate on zero carbon fuels such as hydrogen and ammonia,” says David Furnival, chairman of the company. 

By integrating plans for future improvements into ship designs and installing engines with high levels of adaptability, vessels can better respond to advances in fuel-efficiency technology, changing infrastructure, fuel costs, and the availability of different types of fuels along shipping routes. 

5. Fuel management techniques 

In addition to investing in types of engines and fuels to run them, container shipping companies are also focused on optimisation techniques to lower fuel consumption, which in turn decreases carbon emissions and improves sustainability. Fuel management techniques include implementing a system of just-in-time arrivals, increasing voyage optimisation through digitalisation, improving drag reduction, enhanced weather routing, and implementing a structured programme for hull cleaning and propeller polishing, according to Furnival.

 “BSM has contributed towards better fuel efficiency for vessels under management by developing a powerful analysis software, Performance PAL, that alerts masters, chief engineers and superintendents in case an operating parameter that reduces energy efficiency deviates from normal,” says Furnival. “This allows early detection and intervention to keep the vessel performing at peak energy efficiency for more sustained periods.” 

The BSM Performance PAL has been installed on approximately 400 vessels of all types. 

6. Alternative forms of energy generation 

Another method being explored by shipping companies is powering engines using alternative energy sources. The IMO has called for improved energy efficiency in newbuilds, but the existing fleet can also be retrofitted for increased sustainability for either primary or hybrid propulsion based on renewable energy.

“New tonnage will need to adapt their designs to consume lower CO2 fuels like LNG and bio-fuels or utilise new technology such as fuel cell power generation and wind energy convertors such as rotors and kites,” says Furnival.

While there are renewable energy applications for ships of all sizes, “coastal and shuttle ships may see a shift towards hybrid or all electric propulsion, as fuel cell technology is being improved substantially, but for larger vessels it may take more time before the ‘all electric’ concept is considered,” says Klein.

Deep sea container shipping is a highly competitive market and companies have to carefully weigh the short- and long-term costs and benefits when considering the best options for increasing sustainability. 

“It is our top priority to protect the environment,” says von Berlepsch. “We are well aware that it will not be for free to protect the environment and we are ready to invest. Especially in these times, the importance of the shipping industry becomes quite visible. It is on all of us now, to find the right balance.” 

Written by
Hunter B. Martin