Danish maritime industry sails into a zero-emission future

5 min read
10 Nov 2020
Asa Butcher

Denmark’s new Climate Act calls for a 70% reduction in carbon emissions by 2030. Find out how its marine industry plans to meet the carbon neutrality targets, overcome challenges, and hopefully inspire the world to follow.

If the global shipping sector were a country, it would rank sixth in the amount of CO2 emissions produced in the world. It has been slow to address climate change and pursue carbon neutrality, but that is beginning to change thanks to ambitious initiatives set by Denmark.

Last year, Denmark passed the Climate Act obligating the country to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 70% by 2030. An unprecedented coalition of more than 110 leading industry partners from within the maritime, energy, infrastructure and finance sectors has been formed to drive positive change. 

To do its part, the maritime industry has developed a Climate Partnership for Blue Denmark with two ambitions: to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050 without the use of climate compensation, and to have the first ocean-going zero emission vessel in commercial operation by 2030.

To meet these targets, traditional fossil fuels will have to be replaced with a climate-neutral fuel. The Danish shipping firm, Maersk, is funding a EUR 53.7-million decarbonising research centre and developing an industrial-scale production facility producing sustainable fuels for road, maritime, and air transport. But since this is simply too expensive for the multi-billion-dollar global maritime industry to get wrong, there is no consensus yet on what the next fuel will be. 

Ammonia is the frontrunner

“When it comes to a new fuel, what comes first: the vessels or the logistics systems?” asks Morten Brandborg, managing director and general manager of sales at Wärtsilä Denmark. The Wärtsilä-led ZEEDS (Zero Emission Energy Distribution at Sea) initiative has been developing both simultaneously. 

They have been studying the use of ammonia as a future fuel and have concluded that it has the fewest technological gaps to overcome. Manufactured all over the world, it is emerging as a frontrunner in the race towards a workable zero-carbon fuel. 

“It’s an unlimited resource. You can use it for electric power and it’s cheap, clean, and easy to store,” says Egil Hystad, general manager of Market Innovation at Wärtsilä Marine.

Current global ammonia production is about 176 million tonnes per year and some 20 million tonnes are transported by sea annually, meaning there are cargo holds that can be adapted to become a fuel storage and supply system, explains Hystad, who has been working with ZEEDS for the past few years.

Autonomous fuelling hubs

A driving force of ZEEDS was how to quickly create an efficient infrastructure for the distribution of zero-emission fuels. The answer is autonomous offshore stations, called hubs, located close to shipping lanes so vessels can refill their tanks without needing to bunker in port.

“We were able to look at a system with only five floating hubs and each could remove a million tonnes of CO2 every year, as well as supply clean fuel to about 750 ships in the North Sea and Baltics. We can even repurpose old oil platforms by replacing the processing equipment with our own,” notes Hystad.

Each hub would be beside 74 offshore wind turbines and built with twin-level platforms. Energy produced by the turbines would produce hydrogen from water on the first level, while, on the second level, ammonia could be made from hydrogen and nitrogen extracted from the air.

“We are in the concept stage. The cost of energy is one of the main factors, more than the cost of the actual hardware and infrastructure,” says Hystad.

Bright future on the horizon

In June, the Danish parliament vowed to create the world’s first “Energy Islands”. By connecting several offshore wind farms located in the North Sea and Baltic Sea, they could distribute power between the countries connected to the islands. 

With hybrid and electric ferries already in operation across Norway, Denmark, and Sweden, servicing their many small islands, there will also be investment in the development  of Power-to-X technology, which can provide sustainable fuels to ships.

It is expected that the government will present its proposal for a climate agreement for the transport sector in the coming months. Since shipping is part of the transport sector, it may include elements that effect the industry and is expected to be negotiated later this year .

Whether the ambitious targets can be met depends on overcoming five barriers – finding a global approach, taking a technological quantum leap, developing a future energy system, upgrading infrastructure on land, and positioning climate friendly shipping as a business case.

For an industry that has been slow to react to climate change, it is optimistic to see one of the world’s top maritime nations trying to steer itself, and others, towards the horizon of a brighter future.

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