Decarbonisation – a viable pathway emerges

Wärtsilä embraced the call for sustainability from the very beginning and promoted the change through active collaboration in the ecosystem

In recent years, the maritime sector has awoken to the pressing need to make critical sustainability improvements and rethink its activities by embracing technology and digitalisation. Wärtsilä embraced the call for sustainability from the very beginning and promoted the change through active collaboration in the ecosystem and investments in new technology to usher the maritime industry into the age of decarbonised shipping 

The need to take urgent action, however, has led to new questions and concerns.

How can the industry move towards full decarbonisation in a holistic manner, allowing infrastructure to develop at the necessary pace? How will the future fuel choices resolve into more universal acceptance? And how can existing fleets make the grade as increasingly stringent regulation comes into play?

“What needs to happen now”, says Roger Holm, President of Wärtsilä Marine Power. “is searching for and adopting those commercially viable pathways that will actually make a difference and lead us to decarbonisation. Yes, it’s an uncertain time, but one built on certain truths no one would argue with, and the strongest of these is that things are about to change, both for our customers and their strategic partners and technology providers such as Wärtsilä.”

Roger Holm


The future fuel landscape

One of the key challenges remains the choice of future fuel and the question of which one will be readily available and widely adopted in years to come. Holm maintains that the point is not necessarily to identify a single fuel, but to accept the fact that the landscape of green fuels could vary. 

“It’s not just about what the future fuel for marine actually is,” he points out, “meaning how well it performs, how much space it requires, how difficult it is to store, transport and so on. That’s one aspect. The important angle is to look at which fuels will be available for different industries and how they will compete for these. The marine industry will not be the sole beneficiary.”

Holm advises onlookers to consider how the entire fuel landscape develops, across all sectors, before establishing what will be available for marine, when and why. Only then will we have a true idea of the technology required.

This brings us to the next critical challenge in the journey towards zero emissions and decarbonisation: the rate at which progress can be made, considering the ambitious targets set by the IMO and other global institutions.

“It’s important to understand the timeline and speed of change in our industry,” says Holm, “because if we think of LNG, the maritime transition has been a 20-year process, and today we are at a point where no more than one or two per cent of the fleet can run on LNG.”

Let us not forget that over the next 30 years, we need to transition 60 to 100 per cent of the entire global fleet to new green fuels – a transition on a scale which has never been attempted in the history of shipping.

- Roger Holm, President, Wärtsilä Marine Power

Holm compounds this conundrum with the fact that marine asset lifetime is measured in decades. Therefore, if a fleet owner invests today, the asset in question must be demonstrably able to return value well into the industry’s journey towards complete decarbonisation. He maintains that the industry simply cannot afford to adopt a wait-and-see approach: “It needs to act now and embrace a transition which will be achieved gradually through a series of upgrades and conversions.”

New roads to compliance

Simply stated, Wärtsilä’s technologies can use the fuels available today and be adapted to run on new fuels as these become available. Fleet owners are faced with a multitude of options when looking at future-oriented solutions: alternatives such as ammonia, hydrogen, methanol, biofuels, bio-liquid fuels, bio- gases, synthetic fuels to name but a few. The selection is made more complex by  varying stages of market readiness and infrastructure availability before any can be considered viable for maritime.

“Sometimes the market combines technology and fuel in its rationale,” warns Holm. “But that’s not necessarily the right way to approach the decarbonisation challenge. The key here is upgradability for both the existing fleet and newbuilds. Our proposed solutions are designed to offer fuel flexibility, which grants our customers the assurance that their assets will be future proof through 2050. This doesn’t mean that the solutions we bring into play currently will be the winning bet for the green fuel of the future. But the technology installed will allow upgradeability to that fuel.” 

This is precisely the question Wärtsilä’s customers are asking today: will their newbuilds be compliant in 2050?

Holm goes on to remind us that “if you invest in a vessel today, you can expect it still to be in service at that point. Therefore, the pathway that we propose ensures that when new green fuels finally become viable, our customers don’t have to scrap their ship and invest in a new one. They can rely on upgradeability for continued compliance of their asset, an attribute that we can’t emphasise enough.”

And this is not just the concern of those commissioning a newbuild vessel. Due to the heightening demands of legislation, and the gathering pressure as the timetable becomes tighter year upon year, the issue also becomes a central one for the existing fleet. 

“When we think of decarbonising shipping in general, if our efforts were focused only on building zero-emission vessels, that simply wouldn’t be enough. The first ships beginning construction now might find their way into service in two years’ time, and even then, will only represent a tiny portion of the entire fleet. So change on the scale required has to happen now and this includes vessels in operation today.” 

This brings us to the question of optimisation. “There are so many ways we can optimise our customers’ current assets,” says Holm, “and this has been a cornerstone of Wärtsilä’s business for years. When we apply this to the decarbonisation challenge, you can easily see, for example, that a mere improvement in efficiency of the current fleet could have an immediate global impact.”

If we could hypothetically improve 10% of the vessels now in operation, the measurable effect would be huge. This is the step-by-step change we need

More specifically, Holm highlights integrated efficiency upgrades and digital solutions as perhaps the fastest and most commercially viable way to achieve reduced fuel consumption and emission reductions quickly. 

Electrification and hybrid technologies will also play a key role in the journey towards maritime decarbonisation, he explains. Here too, Wärtsilä’s approach is focused on the present as well as the future. The company’s "Wärtsilä HY" hybrid/battery systems and their integration with conventional enginesoffer significant efficiency improvement by running engines on optimal load and absorbing many of the load fluctuations through batteries. 

“Thanks to the rapid advancement of battery energy efficiency,” Holm continues, “we are already making in-roads in certain segments such as ferries, particularly those operating short routes and commuter journeys. As this development continues, you will begin to see increased power capacity along with further advances in battery technology. When these arrive, combined with the development of infrastructure in docking areas, the industry will inevitably see the benefits of hybrid as a strong additional means of decarbonising operations.”


The journey has begun

In the wake of the aviation industry’s response to the sustainability concerns of its passengers, Holm sees further motivation for the maritime sector arriving from what may have seemed an unlikely source in the past: the end consumer.

But whether the drive towards decarbonisation will ultimately arrive from consumer behaviour and regulatory pressure or simply through increased momentum from within the industry and its societal stakeholders, Holm’s passion for the journey to come remains undiminished.

We believe in the power of our industry and we continually tell our customers that the uncertainties they keep hearing about are, in fact, certainties.

“The maritime industry will decarbonise and Wärtsilä will continue to develop and provide commercially viable pathways to get there,” he concludes. 


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