Exploring new horizons – with electric ships

Diesel is a problem not only on land, but also at sea. Whether it is on ferries, cargo ships or cruise ships: The ecological footprint plays an increasingly important role. Because the industry is one of the dirtiest. It is high time for electric ships. elect! takes a look at the current situation in the electric shipping industry.

From 2020 only fuel which contains a maximum of 0.5 percent of sulphur – instead of up to 3.5 percent which is common today – can be used. Because the cleaner fuel is more expensive, electricity is becoming more attractive as an energy source. Norway in particular is raising awareness of the issue.

Electric car ferries: Norway is a pioneer

Siemens developed the technology for the first electric car and passenger ferry in the world in 2015 with the Norwegian shipyard Fjellstrand. Since then the electric ship has been moving silently through the Norwegian fjords – 34 times every day at 20-minute intervals between Lavik and Oppedal north of Bergen. A conventional ferry on this route consumes roughly one million litres of diesel per year and emits 2,680 tonnes of carbon dioxide as well as 37 tonnes of nitrogen oxide into air. In contrast, the new 80 metre long electric ship is powered by two 450 kilowatt electric motors, which take their energy from lithium-ion batteries. 

However, the total capacity of the batteries (1,000 kilowatt hours (kWh)) is only sufficient for some of the daily ferries between the two fjord communities. The engineers have solved the range problem with three battery packs – one on board and one in each port. The two 260 kWh units recharge the ship's battery during the wait time in the port. Then the emitted energy is slowly replaced from the grid until the ship comes back to set down passengers and recharge. 

Electric ferries are also gaining momentum in Germany. For example, Western Pomerania wants to promote greater electric mobility on water. In June 2017 a corresponding EU project was started which supports the development, production and sale of ships and boats with an electric drivetrain (Elmar). The project should help companies from the ship and boat construction industry with using new technologies – for example with boat construction workshops or conferences for ship construction companies. In recent years the metal works company Ostseestaal has built several boats with an electric drivetrain which the Stralsund shipping company Weisse Flotte, for example, use as ferries for public transportation on Berlin waterways.

First electric container ship set to cast off in 2018

The first fully electric container ship is due to set sail in 2018. It is currently being built by the Norwegian chemicals company Yara and the defence group Kongsberg. In the future Yara Birkeland is to transport fertilisers between three ports. Up to now the approximately 20,000 containers each year covered these routes by truck. Whereas the ship now has space for 120 containers. This reduces dust and noise, increases safety on the roads and lowers the negative impacts on the environment. This is possible by the battery on board the ship with a power rating of over 7,000 kilowatt hours. In 2020 the ship should drive completely autonomously. 

At the start of 2017 the world's first battery-operated working vessel for fish farming was put into operation. The fishing fleet alone, which presently consumes roughly 400 million litres of diesel per year, could lower its fuel consumption by 80 percent by converting to an electric drivetrain. That is an important contribution to the 40 percent reduction of the greenhouse gas CO₂, to which the Norwegian government is committed.

Cleaner air in the port thanks to passenger ships with hybrid drive

In October 2018 the expedition vessel of the Norwegian shipping company is to head out to sea from Chile – supported by electric motors. Lithium-ion batteries will be an essential component of the engine room and will propel the 140 metre long ship fully electrically for at least 30 minutes. The Ulstein shipyard in Norway also uses hybrid drives – for passenger ships. It is building the largest passenger ship in the world with a hybrid drive for the Color Line shipping company. From 2019 it is to shuttle passengers in southern Norway and abstain from using diesel engines as soon as it approaches the port. The ship can drive for one hour using electric power alone, which leads to cleaner air in the port. 

These developments show: Seafaring is in the midst of a radical change, which the automotive industry is executing now: moving away from oil and towards battery-powered drive systems. Dozens of ships are already being constructed – starting with local car ferries through to big passenger ships. But also in the shipping industry it will be necessary in the future to extend ranges and refine the technology.

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