As the sector strives to achieve zero emissions by 2050, several solutions and technologies are being implemented and tested. For instance, electric and hybrid-electric ships and vessels are popular options for reducing emissions. But are electric ships a viable option?
lectric ships are powered by electricity stored in batteries, eliminating the need for fossil fuels and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. These ships are not only environmentally friendly but also offer quieter and smoother operations, making them ideal for sensitive marine ecosystems and urban areas near ports.
According to a recent Electric Ships Market analysis, the market is predicted to reach $14.9 billion by 2030, up from $3.7 billion in 2022, at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 19.7%. Many people, however, are sceptical of electric ships due to safety concerns.
Concerns generally focus on the possibility of electrical failures and potential fire risks associated with battery storage and charging. Despite these reservations, continuous technological breakthroughs aim to tackle these issues and make electric ships a potential and sustainable answer for the future of marine transportation.
How do they work?
Electric ships employ electric propulsion systems, which include electric motors that are driven by electricity stored in batteries, fuel cells, or generated aboard using renewable sources such as solar panels or wind turbines. These propulsion methods use less energy and emit fewer pollutants than internal combustion engines.
Some ships employ a combination of methods, integrating electric propulsion with a backup power source such as diesel generators or fuel cells. Because the ship can switch between power sources depending on operating needs, this configuration gives it flexibility and increased range.
Shore power and electric propulsion
Several vessels are already equipped with electric motors that use electric power to move ships within port areas instead of relying on traditional internal combustion engines.
Meanwhile, shore power, or cold ironing, or alternative marine power (AMP), is the technique of giving electrical power to ships when they are stopped at ports, allowing them to turn off their onboard engines and generators. This procedure entails connecting a ship to the port’s local electrical grid, which provides the ship with the energy needed to operate its systems without the use of internal combustion engines.
What technologies are already available?
- Diesel-electric drive: Electricity is generated by diesel generators. The electricity then powers the electric engine, which propels the ship’s propeller.
- Hybrid drive: Batteries are used in addition to the internal combustion engine. On the one hand, they can be activated briefly when a power surge is required. On the other side, they can store excess energy, such as that generated by a diesel generator.
- Fully electric drive: There is no internal combustion engine on board; all energy is supplied by batteries.
However, like any technology, it also comes with safety hazards that need to be carefully managed. Some potential safety hazards associated with electric ships include:
Watch out: High current
Electric ships rely heavily on high-voltage electrical systems for propulsion, power generation, and various onboard systems. Faulty wiring, an insulation breakdown, or equipment malfunction can lead to electrical shocks, fires, and even explosions. Proper insulation, grounding, and maintenance are crucial to mitigating these risks.
Batteries, or is it better as is?
Electric ships often use large battery banks to store and provide energy for propulsion and onboard systems. Lithium-ion batteries, while efficient, can pose fire and explosion risks if damaged, overcharged, or exposed to extreme conditions. Proper battery management systems, thermal monitoring, and safety protocols are essential to preventing these hazards.
Maintenance and training
Electric ship systems require specialised maintenance procedures and trained personnel. Inadequate maintenance can lead to issues, equipment malfunctions, and safety hazards. Regular inspections, maintenance schedules, and qualified personnel are essential to ensuring safe operation.
Furthermore, as it happens with most alternative solutions to ships that run with conventional diesel fuel, seafarers are not trained on electrical ships and require extra training to know how to handle such systems, or their welfare and the ship’s integrity are in danger.
Unlike conventional ships that can refuel at established ports with fueling stations, electric ships require charging infrastructure. Building and maintaining this infrastructure, including high-capacity charging stations, can be expensive and time-consuming.
Electric vessels are in operation and under development.
In early August 2023, Vega-Reederei will extend its fleet by ordering 10 Conoship International 3,800 DWT diesel-electric coasters. Also in August 2023, Corvus Energy announced it will build 40 MWh of energy storage, which upon completion will be the largest battery system installed onboard a ship—four times as big as the current largest installation.
A few days ago, Baltic Workboats AS and BLRT Grupp announced that they would build a fully electric waste collection tanker for the Port of Klaipeda. In May, COSCO SHIPPING Heavy Industry (Yangzhou) started to build the second 700 TEU electric container ship (N998) owned by COSCO SHIPPING Development.
Furthermore, this April, Vitol’s Singaporean bunker operations company, V-Bunkers, announced that it will be taking delivery of its first electric-hybrid bunker tanker, Marine Charge.
Also in April, MOL reported that Akari, the world’s second pure battery tanker, completed its first bunkering operation in Kawasaki. However, apart from those recent developments, one of the most iconic moments for electric shipping took place in April 2022 with the christening of Yara Birkeland, the world’s first electric, autonomous container vessel.
Where we stand
One of the main challenges in ensuring safety measures for electric ships is the need to develop robust protocols for handling such systems. Of course, except for protocols, training is also needed.
Additionally, the establishment of a comprehensive charging infrastructure for electric ships is crucial to support their widespread adoption and ensure seamless operations across different ports and waterways.