Shipping is a conservative, exclusive business, heavy on risk and reward, light on regulation and tax. So goes the playbook of all those outside the industry trying to regulate it, make some money out of it – and I think Mr Veniamis has a point here – or both. Inside the industry we claim that we are not understood, we do our best with the tools available to us, and in any case without us the world would grind to a halt fairly quickly, so please leave us alone. Nowhere are these arguments shrillest than in the matters of technology and the environment.
The problem is exacerbated by the labelling of those resistant to technological change as technophobes, usually by the opposite camp, the technomaniacs, and vice versa. Shipowners, particularly Greek shipowners, are described as suffering from technophobia by the techies when they fail to grasp and embrace the new technology the techies are selling. These ideas are usually borrowed from existing forms of software and systems, big data, artificial intelligence and so on, and purveyors of these ideas hope that with a little luck and investment they will get the contract to develop their idea into something that will gain traction, lead them down the road to an IPO and an island in the South Pacific. It is, the techies say, the shipowners’ fault that shipping remains conservative and resistant to new ideas, without asking themselves whether their idea is of any use, and whether anyone would pay for it.
A couple of years ago I was invited by Marine Traffic to a function. I ate their food, and drank their wine, but was a little indiscrete because I questioned where the future lay for them. They are good and understanding guys at Marine Traffic, and rather than kick me out on the street, they instead invited me to a meeting to discuss where their product could go, and what functions they could sell into the shipbroking community. I explained my opinion, which hasn’t changed, that AIS data, widely available, was reaching the limits of usefulness and applicability. Yes, it’s good to know where ships are, generally and specifically, and at what speed they are moving, and whether they are laden or in ballast, but beyond that, what? The data is exhausted.
I know of owners and charterers that use AIS in a meta-sense to predict where the market is going, and use it to help them make strategic decisions, but it is just one of the many variables – including sentiment – that go into influencing the freight market. And as this information is potentially available to everyone, first, second or third-hand what drives the market is not the data, but the actions of those using it, or not using it, as the case may be. I am glad that Marine Traffic is the most visible and seemingly most successful of those platforms that use AIS data and I use their site often. But I don’t pay for it, as I can get what I need from their free service. I am sure I am not alone. There may be a tweak that they could do that may make me part with some cash for a service that I would find useful, but I suspect that their focus on the brave new world of meta-data and the unicorn idea has diverted their attention from the small and achievable.
The same argument can be made for changes in marine propulsion and fuel. It is my assertion that at present the most efficient and environmentally friendly fuel in shipping is marine gas oil. It has none of the nasty particles of sulphur or other harmful substances floating around in it, there is little waste, run off or evaporation, and it is safer to the marine environment if it is spilt. It is also safe for crew. But it has carbon in it, so it is bad. Just to reiterate: LNG as a marine fuel is a more potent polluter of the atmosphere because of slippage whilst the fuel combusts in the main engine, and although it is mostly clean exhaust, it is still carbon. I am willing to be proved wrong here, so please point me in the right direction if I am.
In all that I have seen and read about the future of marine pollution, I have not seen any news about how to make engines, and ships, more efficient than they are now by modifying the systems incrementally. The big money is focused on the game changing big idea – green ammonia, green hydrogen and so on – without thinking about the interim steps that could be taken in the meantime. Rather than use the technology and fuels that exist today, we shall wait until green hydrogen is available as a fuel, and is economical to use, before we make any major changes.
But one area that could be worked on in the meantime, and could cut down on some emissions, are fuel cells. These are devices that generate electricity through an electrochemical reaction, not combustion, and could provide electricity supply on large ships, which would reduce costs and emissions in the meantime. Although ideally they can use hydrogen as the cleanest fuel, they can also use ammonia, or even LNG, without slippage. It is the hydrogen atoms they are after, not the carbon.
In fact, Odfjell Tankers from Bergen are developing a prototype fuel cell to be installed on one of their newest chemical tankers, so the technology is here and about to be used. What I find attractive about this is that people are getting on with using it rather than waiting for biggest ideas to arrive and then change the world. As Erik Hjortlandm VP Technology at Odfjell SE explained:
The fuel cell project is one of the paths we are pursuing. We focus on machinery rather than focusing on one single type of fuel. Fuel cell technology gives us flexibility that ensures environmentally efficient operation regardless of fuel changes that may occur in the years ahead.
I am persuaded by this approach. The technology exists, it can be adapted to use different fuels, it can be used practically at the moment, and if successful can be scaled up to something bigger, or adapted into something better. Reducing emissions by 40% by using LNG (as opposed to an LNG main engine/generators) is a good start, without slippage, especially whilst the world gets it head around green hydrogen and ammonia production and supply.