Shift happens

Diane Gilpin from the Smart Green Shipping Alliance makes the case for renewable energy use at sea.

On a journey from the Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre I was idling through Twitter and came across Andrew Craig-Bennett’s article It Could Get a Whole Lot Worse and it struck a chord.

I’d been invited to Scotland, to the UK’s largest renewable energy show, All-Energy, to speak about the untapped potential for deploying renewable energy in the maritime sector. The most notable audience reaction to my presentation was bewilderment that shipping could have failed to grasp the huge commercial potential from renewable energy.

Adjacent to the conference centre 22,500 sq m of exhibition space was occupied by 350 exhibitors anticipating 8,000 renewable energy executives with dazzling displays of new technologies, O&M solutions, data evaluation, recruiters, media, finance, law. Major energy companies had mega-stands; former oil and gas explorers – fleeing their current nightmares – had re-purposed their offerings for this new growth industry; both established and chippy new car manufacturers displayed the latest clean tech vehicles; big accountancy, consulting, banking and law firms advised on profiting from the new business models brought about by renewable energy; government bodies, ‘smart cities’ and regions rich in renewable energy resources strutted their stuff. This was clearly a growing, confident and mature business sector.

It was hard to believe that just two decades earlier the concept of renewable energy was dismissed as ‘tree-hugging’ nonsense. I’m old enough to have experienced that attitude first hand, and I experience it again now in the shipping industry. Where shipping was represented at All-Energy it was offered only as a support service to offshore wind.

Mr Craig-Bennett suggested, “We are perhaps the most unimaginative generation in the history of merchant shipping” and I nodded ruefully at my smartphone.

Twenty years ago the first onshore wind turbines produced just 300 kw energy. Now we’re seeing 8 mw turbines sited far offshore. The owners of the original technology have made, and continue to make, millions. Last year investment in renewables increased by 17% whilst at the same time all the major US coal miners went in to Chapter 11.

Shift happens.

As the servant of global trade, shipping must deliver what the market needs. With everyone else signed up to the Paris Agreement clean, reliable supply chains are critical.

If fuel accounts for something like 60% of a ship’s running costs, and with every other sector staking a claim to liquid bio-based fuels, this easy drop-in option will be scarce – read: expensive.

Free fuel

This chart shows how solar panel technology has evolved over 40 years.


Visionaries began to figure out how to make electricity from the infinitely available power of the sun. Engineers took up the challenge and drove down technology costs, markets began to grow, new business models were created, technology became more accessible and manufacturing costs fell further until the market started to explode.

Harvesting free fuel fundamentally changes our relationship with energy. It is no longer an expensive, hard won commodity priced subject to supply, demand and political shenanigans; 21st century energy is free and the new energy tycoons are the people that own the tech that allows us to harness it.

I want to invest in solar panels so I don’t have to think about electricity bills ever again. My future is much more certain and I love this autonomy.

Let’s extrapolate that to shipping.

Install technology that harnesses free energy and the asset is, at least partially, decoupled from the uncertainty and volatility of traditional bunker supplies – ensuring improved fuel cost predictability, which in turn enables better long term business planning.

Shippers can enjoy lower cost, longer term, more predictable freight rates – a winning customer proposition giving pioneers of maritime renewables a clear market advantage.

Ultimately, though, the technology owners are the biggest winners. Soon everyone’s wants the latest fuel harvesting device. Every product sold returns a fee to the owner of the IP.

Win win wind

And which is the first renewable energy of choice for a large part of the shipping sector? Wind.

At which point some readers might find themselves defaulting to all the reasons why wind just doesn’t work. Just like the fossil fuel industry did two decades ago. And even while the maritime sector is providing support to the huge, and rapidly expanding industry profiting from wind as a go-to 21st century power source.

Shipping: it’s time to let the scales fall from the eyes.

So, just for a moment, let’s wrap our collective imaginations around how wind could work for shipping. A 21st century sailing ship is as much like the Cutty Sark as an 8 MW offshore turbine is a Dutch windmill.

No one’s saying there’s a one-size-fits-all solution, this is one of multiple 21st century technologies. There’s an awful lot of smart out there.

Wind is free, abundant and it’s exclusively available. Many of today’s trade routes developed out of sail-power and our market analysis points to about 50,000 ships, either retrofit or newbuild, that could benefit significantly from deploying wind. Used in conjunction with the engine it hedges fuel costs whilst maintaining schedules. Big data analysis allows the value of the wind to be monetised for any ship, on any route on an annual basis, giving all parties certainty and comfort.

The Smart Green Shipping Alliance (SGSA) has developed three interconnected products: Fastrig – the tech to harness the wind; Tradewind – the big data analysis tool (based on one developed by the UK’s Met Office to support the growth of onshore wind) to quantify the propulsive contribution from renewable energy and RE:surge – the financial product to capitalise on the benefits of deploying ‘free’ energy. Each product has value in its own right but together they create a system solution that accelerates market uptake. The proposition is good-to-go; we have a commitment to a long-term contract from a credible shipper.

Is shipping ready for the shift?

Aviation pioneers at Solar Impulse are flying a 100% solar powered plane around the world.

The automotive entrepreneur, Elon Musk, whose Tesla business secured 325 000 orders in one day for a car yet to be built, has just – because, why not? – landed a spaceship on a barge… for the second time.

There’s always enough innovation and imagination to make the impossible possible.

It just isn’t very obvious in the shipping sector right now. Which is a shame, because like Mr Craig-Bennett I think history is right to have a soft spot for the awesome contribution shipping has made to the global community. Now’s the time for merchant shipping to demonstrate it still has its ambitious, pioneering spirit and enthusiastically explore the renewable horizon and beyond.


  1. Splendid article! (I would say that, wouldn’t I?”

    Part of the trouble with getting shipowning into renewables is that there are rather few marine engineers with knowledge of, and experience in, renewables, and indeed there are rather few engineers with experience in renewables who have marine engineering qualifications and experience. The engineers, who are the people that we all rely on to translate ideas into things that work properly, are not able to answer the questions that we want to ask them, and that makes it tough for pioneers.

    Another part of the problem has been that ships spend much of their time burning residual fuel oil, which is cheap and also nasty and “has to go somewhere”. We shipping people have seen the imposition of emissions limits on us as a sort of Shore Based Annoyance, to be complied with grudgingly, rather than as an exciting new opportunity to beat the competition.

    Lastly, and thinking particularly of wind power, the paraphernalia for employing it gets dreadfully in the way of the paraphernalia for getting the cargo in and out.. some real engineering thinking, of the sorts that Diane lists in her article, will be needed to solve this.

    I will end with a thought. Wind ships are easy and simple to operate on the great oceans. They are very much more difficult in coastal operations, but I once dealt with a dry bulk charterer – Mr TK Boesen, to be precise – who told me that his very first fixture as a trainee broker was of a Danish galleass to carry seven tons of hay,.. and I can recall seeing the last Thames barges with real cargo. This is actually within living memory, but nobody had “tweaked” the technology of a Baltic galeass or a Thames barge for a century. The old stuff was almost competitive. What happens if we move short sea cargo using wind power…?

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