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EDITORIAL DECEMBER 2010
Whenever the oil price rises to the astronomical levels it reached 18 months or
so ago, talk inevitably turns to alternatives to hydrocarbon fuels.
When, simultaneously, much of the world starts worrying about global warming,
emission excesses, rising sea levels and other real or imagined problems, all manner of
solutions begin to be bandied about.
Various “kites” have been flown. Indeed, one proposed solution for large cargo
vessels was kite sails. As with so many of the proposed solutions in previous periods of
oil panic, most of the ideas that have been proposed recently are simply not practical.
As well as kite sails, we have been hearing of solar power, wing sails, “cold ironing”
and a myriad other proposed ways of reducing emissions and reducing our reliance on
hydrocarbon sourced fuels.
At their current stage of development, solar and wind power are, in my humble
opinion, unlikely to provide more than limited auxiliary or “in port” power
generation. Cold ironing could only take on in loopy California. It is one of the most
ludicrous proposals I’ve ever heard of. All it does is move the pollution generator away
from the ship. At the same time, it necessitates the consumption of considerably more
fuel because 60 percent of the power generated is lost in transmission to the ship. Only
In my view most of the other radical solutions that have been proposed are hardly
worth investigation. They are either unrealistically expensive or totally impractical in
So, we get back to the kinds of realistic, practical solutions that the industry has been
working on since the move from coal to oil powered ships commenced in the 1920s.
These, of course, involve improved hull shapes and finishes; more efficient and cleaner
engines, generators and propulsion systems; more economical operational doctrines;
and, much stronger disciplines as to ballast water, sewage and garbage discharges.
A lot of this is basic common sense. I was reminded of this when looking at the very
good web site of Grand Banks Yachts recently. Grand Banks sell very high quality motor
yachts to rich and discerning but not necessarily very practical owners. Anyway, the
web site lists a number of ways of reducing fuel consumption. From memory they were:
go slower; travel by the most direct route; eliminate unnecessary weight, keep your
bottom clean and smooth; adjust your trim; use tides, currents and winds to your
advantage; ensure your propulsion system is working efficiently; reduce genset usage;
and, finally, service your engines.
What goes for luxury motor yachts applies equally to commercial vessels.
Unfortunately, many people do not think as simply or sensibly as that.
Obviously, the maritime industry generally will soon have to make significant
reductions in fuel consumption, emissions and noxious discharges. Shippers and,
ultimately, consumers will have to pay for that. Fortunately, the resulting addition to the
price of a typical car, television set, fish, suit or refrigerator, for example, will be slight.
The problem, of course, is who will make the first move. Courageously, the Hong
Kong Shipowners Association has made a public call for the widespread replacement of
heavy oil fuel with distillate. Its counterpart in Malaysia has called for slower steaming.
The fact is that everyone will have to agree to such moves to make them work.
It goes without saying, of course, that the whole world would be better off if more
cargo were carried by sea than on land or, God forbid, by air. Ships use by far the least
fuel and emit the least nasties per cargo or passenger tonne/mile.
Some industry leaders are already setting the pace. My friends at Strang Systems, here
in Melbourne, for example, have devised some very simple but much better ways of
packing containers. Others such as CMA CGM have come up with lighter, cleaner, more
hygienic containers and low energy consumption reefers.
Deep thinkers like eminent Hong Kong shipowner Tan Sri Frank Tsao of IMC Group
have been mulling the wasteful problem of back loading. Mr Tsao is looking at solutions
to the waste involved in bringing, for example, coal and iron ore from Australia to
China in bulkers that are empty, for their outward journey. The resulting cars and
refrigerators and so on return to Australia in containers or on PCTCs that are often
largely empty on the return leg of their voyages.
He is re-examining the possibility of carrying containers in the holds of bulkers on
their outward voyage. While that goes against conventional wisdom, it definitely
appears “doable” given a bit of innovation.
Most of these solutions are technically feasible and, in many cases, only incremental
in cost. Because of that they can be very effective. They are much more likely to be
adopted, I believe, than some of the concepts I mentioned at the outset.
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