Is today the wrong time for efficiency innovations?

Malcolm Latarche
Malcolm Latarche

26 August 2016


News that Norsepower has received around €2.4m in grants to improve its Rotorsail technology has been making the headlines this week but is the time ripe for such innovation. In the 1920s when the first ships equipped with Flettner rotors took to the seas, the concept was doomed because of low fuel costs and long payback times. Quite likely there were other objections from cautious owners some of which will still play against the idea of fitting giant cylinders to ships today. That an idea has been proven to provide fuel savings has never been sufficient reason for it to be warmly embraced because of other considerations. Some of those considerations would be ease of use, interference with navigation and manoeuvring in areas of restricted height, maintenance and potential damage and consequent delays. Leaving those considerations aside, the economic climate in shipping in 2016 and possibly for some years going forward is not what it was in 2007 when German shipowner Enercon first announced its E-Ship 1 vessel would be fitted with four Flettner rotors, nor in 2014 when Bore decided to add a rotor to its ro-ro Estraden. There had even been earlier attempts to revive the technology in several research projects between 1976 and 1990 supported by the German ministry of research and with participation by Germanischer Lloyd with a proposed installation of two rotors on a small chemical tanker that eventually did not materialise. As things stand, current low fuel prices will be a barrier as they were in the 1920s but even more of a problem is that the over capacity of the world fleet will reduce the number of newbuildings if owners practice the restraint necessary to bring supply and demand back into equilibrium. Another hurdle to overcome is possible lack of funding as likely over the next five years shipowners will have to find cash for ballast water treatment systems and ways of meeting lower SOx levels expected to come into effect in 2020. Although fuel savings from such technologies as Norsepower is developing would be welcome, lack of capital is likely to be a major deterrent to their take-up. Of course the next phases of EEDI may require such technology on new ships, but as already mentioned newbuilding levels are hardly likely to reach the heady heights of 2011-12 for some years to come.