Yes We Can, Because We Must

Updated 5 Sep 2019

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The shipping industry stands on the banks of the Rubicon in terms of its pollution and sustainability profile. Ahead lie very difficult years, at a time when only some sectors are showing signs of recovery and others are facing continuing volatility and uncertainty.

There is no hiding from the confluence of physical effects; the rise of unconventional oil and gas and the long twilight of the offshore deepwater energy industries, the peaking of China’s steel production capacity and the resulting impact on the flow of raw materials that feed it.

Beyond the short term effects of a trade war threatening to disrupt the flow of consumer goods and commodities, some analysts have warned that globalisation itself could be close to peaking, potentially capping container trade growth.

The next decade and beyond will be far more complex for the shipping industry than the previous one and the carbon challenge sits behind every analysis.

The targets set by the IMO for long term carbon reduction and ultimately decarbonisation are probably the most ambitious piece of regulation in its history – they may also prove to be its most contentious.

The scale of the challenge is simply breath-taking and implies a complete revolution in how ships are powered if the targets are to be met by the date intended.

The fact that the IMO has segmented the problem shows that it understands the scale of the challenge and also that the steps to be taken must to be phased, practical and achievable if we are to have any chance of meeting the targets.

That displeases some NGOs; especially following MEPC73, which was forced to focus on 2020, but did provide some non-mandatory measures that owners can use focus on carbon emissions and efficiency.

But the IMO is being pragmatic and realistic; like the rest of the industry it knows it cannot flip a switch, a phased approach is needed to start to drive emissions down even though it is still using fossil fuels.

We will be using fossil-derived fuels for a while yet but the important issue is for the industry to be clear that in the long term that this cannot be the case. Slow steaming provides a temporary technical leg-up to the market and reduced emissions too but it does not remove the source of the problem.

A shift has to be made: industry stakeholders and society itself will demand it and this call cannot be ignored.

Whether the reduction target is realistic is something that we cannot say for certain at the moment. We just don’t know. But we have a date for candidate measures and a date for targeted reductions and the starting gun has been fired.

It is the industry’s responsibility to make progress and move the process forward. Only by doing so will we discover if the targets and deadlines are realistic.

The Methanol Institute exists to promote Methanol as a marine fuel. It’s a clean and efficient propulsion medium that can provide an effective bridge between our current fuel oil-dominated industry and one that enables the industry to still use internal combustion engines, though in a much cleaner way.

Conventional Methanol is derived from fossil fuels but its carbon emissions ‘in sector’ in other words while it is being consumed, are very low – certainly enough to provide a pathway to a low carbon emission future. Like LNG it has negligible SOx and PM emissions so it can enable the industry to comply with the IMO’s 2020 regulations as of now.

It has the long term advantage in that post-2020 when the price of marine fuel increases and owners and operators increasingly move towards long term contracts over spot purchasing for bunkers, Methanol becomes cost competitive against traditional fuels.

Methanol-fuelled ships are already safely in operation on a global basis and the regulatory backdrop is building all the time. The ISO has already agreed to develop a standard for Methanol as marine fuel similar to that for conventional bunker fuel.

In September this year, the IMO agreed draft interim guidelines covering the safety of ships using methyl/ethyl alcohol as fuel. The draft guidelines, which were agreed at the end of the CCC5 sub-committee meeting, completes the work undertaken by the Correspondence Group on Development of Technical Provisions for the Safety of Ships using Low-flashpoint Fuels and are designed to provide for the safe design and operation of ships using methyl/ethyl alcohol as fuel.

Ultimately this should lead to the inclusion of Methanol within the IGF Code on a formal basis. At present, constructing or converting Methanol powered ships requires close work between yard, owner, class and flag but it is possible. Once the IMO agrees to adopt Methanol as a marine fuel, the process will be simplified and streamlined to some degree.

So how long do we expect it will take for Methanol to be available as a means of providing the main power supply onboard a ship?

It is happening now and there is no need to delay for owners who make to make the switch. Methanol is proven as a marine fuel and in service on the eight ships in service with four more on order for Waterfront Shipping as well as the Stena Germanica Ropax ferry.

Recent testbed projects have proven Methanol’s suitability as a fuel for small diesel engines as well as large ones, with minimal conversion necessary and a virtually straight swap for gasoil or low sulphur diesel. The recent MethaShip project concluded that conventional and Biomethanol were fuels with potential application on large cruiseships.

There are no barriers to the wider adoption of Methanol as a marine fuel on a variety of ships though its energy profile means it is ideally suited to coastal, short sea, cruise, liner and inland shipping. Any mode that makes regular port calls is positioned to take advantage of Methanol which is available at the majority of large ports around the world.

Conversion and installation costs are a fraction of those for LNG because Methanol does not require cryogenic tanks or a complex delivery system. A simple tank with double-walled piping is as complicated as it gets, It can be stored, bunkered and consumed in a way that is no different from fuel oil.

With the exception of Methanol, the available options for compliance with the IMO’s 2030 candidate measures and 2050 emissions reduction targets are extremely limited. If the shipping industry wants to get anywhere near achieving these targets without conventional liquid fuels it needs to start the research and development process into new fuels now.

The available but unconventional options are either unproven or unsuitable for large scale deployment on merchant vessels. Batteries, hydrogen, wind and solar hold promise but they are years away from successful commercial deployment at a scale comparable to Methanol – and in the long term its more sustainable version, renewable Methanol.

Methanol can be produced from renewable sources including landfill gas, biomass, or by utilising concentrated solar energy in a thermo-chemical reactor to re-energise CO2 into CO to produce syngas (a mixture of CO and Hydrogen), to then feed a methanol synthesis reactor capable of providing the same kind of power but with a very low carbon lifecycle.

This technology already exists with several projects already commercially viable - without subsidies, thereby ‘future proofing’ methanol. A number of shipowners are currently considering blending small amounts of renewable methanol with conventional methanol and, in the process, ensuring methanol advances down a path of very low ‘well to wake’ emissions that can keep the industry moving beyond 2050

As it stands there are no other fuels that can do this on a large enough scale to satisfy the demand of the merchant fleet and frankly, Biomethanol cannot satisfy this need by itself. We don’t imagine that methanol alone is the long-term solution to shipping’s carbon emissions, but it can play a key role in the transition and moving forward as fuels that we don’t yet have make their debut.

A question commonly asked is about the transfer of pollution emissions from one place to another: if electric power generation for charging batteries is produced using fossil fuels, the problem has just been moved away from the ship and on to land.

This is a huge problem for the industry but it’s a conversation that we have been having since the advent of cold-ironing at ports. It is literally true, but as power generation – in both western and eastern hemispheres - increasingly swaps coal for gas, the source of electricity is cleaner and the pollution and by-products can be managed to a greater extent.

Our research has shown that ports for example can be hot spots for air pollution – from sulphur, PM and by implication from carbon too. Methanol can power not just the ships but the port equipment and even the trucks moving raw materials and containers in and out and begin to make a real contribution to cleaner air and emissions reduction.

But let’s not kid ourselves; the challenge ahead is massive, the goals are extreme compared to anything we have known until now. Methanol has a role to play but we need broader innovation and experimentation to develop the kind of new fuels we will need to make the industry sustainable beyond 2050.

The shipping industry is many things but it is not always collegiate in its attitude to problem solving. First movers are often punished and owners are wary of investing in unproven technologies.

We would propose that the shipping industry looks to directly reward innovation in this space in the first instance with a programme that looks for new ideas and then, in co-operation and collaboration with industry and the IMO, supports and rewards their development with the funding they need to gain a degree of acceptance.

But the fact remains, the challenge has been issued. The industry must respond and work to develop the solutions we need. We have learned a lot from the implementation phase of IMO2020 and not all of it has been positive. But we have no choice but to innovate; the alternative is unthinkable.

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