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Shipping Environment & Sustainability

[Part One] The future of wind propulsion solutions - challenges, technology and trends

Posted by on 03 February 2020
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The challenges of emission reduction in the maritime sector are not trivial. Most industry insiders agree there will not be a magic bullet, but rather the pathway to the decarbonisation of the shipping industry will come from a hybrid approach.

A mix of alternative fuels, energy efficiency measures and operational changes underwritten by big data, will form an integral part of the road-map to reducing emissions as the industry strives to meet IMO emissions targets in the coming decades.

Wind-assist and primary wind propulsion solutions are beginning to form a very real part of this conversation. The UK government’s Clean Maritime Plan estimating that wind propulsion technology will be a £2 billion per year market by the 2050s.

With the upsurge of interest in both wind-assist and primary wind propulsion solutions in Japan and in the industry worldwide, we recently heard that Tokyo-based classification society, ClassNK, has joined the International Windship Association (IWSA).

Mr. Hayato Suga, Corporate Officer and Director of Plan Approval and Technical Solution Division noted that; "...wind propulsion technology will play an even greater role as ships’ power source, ClassNK has been developing necessary standards to ensure the safety and soundness of designs applying them. Utilizing our expertise and R&D outcome, I’m looking forward to working together with IWSA members to meet the challenges of emission reduction.”

“2020 will be a critical year for wind propulsion developments as we enter the ‘decade to deliver’ on GHG emission reductions.”

In the press release, Gavin Allwright, Secretary General of IWSA noted; “2020 will be a critical year for wind propulsion developments as we enter the ‘decade to deliver’ on GHG emission reductions.”

Gavin Allwright has been the Secretary of the IWSA since it was established in 2014. The grouping of maritime wind propulsion companies and projects supported by academia, NGO’s and seafarers is working to promote and facilitate the uptake of wind propulsion solutions in commercial shipping. Alongside his work as association secretary, he also leads the policy and finance work streams, requiring regular attendance at IMO, OECD and EU meetings.

In a two-part interview, we sat down with Gavin Allwright to discuss technology, trends, adoption, and finance, with regards to wind-assist and primary wind propulsion solutions.

In this piece, we ask Gavin about the challenges of wind-assist and primary wind propulsion solutions, technology, trends, and what the future holds for wind propulsion.


Iain Gomersall: In what areas can wind propulsion facilitate or deliver a more sustainable, greener shipping?

Gavin Allwright: Wind propulsion is an immediately available technology which can be implemented now. There are several solutions which are already market ready or going through their sea trails - going through their final processes to be classified at present - and there is a large pipeline coming through.

These technologies can deliver between 5-20% savings in fuel and subsequent emissions straight away. With optimised versions of these technologies, we are looking to up to 30% savings on retrofit wind-assist.

Primary wind propulsion vessels, with an auxiliary engine, will have substantially higher savings and some projects are quoting very high percentages of fuel savings with no changes to the operational profile on some routes.

Naturally, the primary wind propulsion vessels are more likely to be new builds. These new builds are generally more costly and take a little longer to come into the fleet as a transformation trend.

Q: What are the challenges of installing wind propulsion - technology, adoption, or something else? Are there unique challenges for new build or retrofits?

Gavin Allwright: I don’t believe there are substantial technological challenges anymore. These systems are being developed hand-in-hand with multiple stakeholders, input from owners, operators and class and there is a plethora of systems – upwards of 30 systems in different categories.

The technical aspects of these systems are pretty much solved, there are some installation issues but those for something like rotors, for example are straightforward. The base plates can be installed in a matter of days and the rotors can be lifted into place in a matter of hours for the standard versions.

A retrofit of a system like that is not so complicated to do but other heavier rigs or more substantial systems can take longer but those could pretty much be fitted during a standard dry-dock cycle.

“…you are really minimizing the issues which you can have and maximizing the opportunities.”

For retrofits there is the potential for the need to strengthen a bit of the super-structure or decking but not substantial challenges. One also needs to be aware that you are not going to be getting the optimal savings from any given vessel type if she is not optimised from the design stage.

With a new build, obviously there can be  a substantial increase in the Capex but because you are able to integrate all the systems very effectively like the hull, deck layouts, etc to take into account the wind propulsion technology, here you are really minimizing the issues which you can have and maximizing the opportunities. Of course, that increased Capex will be returned in fuel savings.

Q: What are the technical concerns with regards to operating wind propulsion - structural, stability, or crew related?

Gavin Allwright: All of the systems coming on to vessels are class certified and our association members are working closely with maritime research facilities and class to make sure that safety issues and stability issues are covered. Things like extreme weather conditions have been tested, during the sea trails and considerations around stability and automatic furling etc, are all dealt with at that stage.

On the operational front, I would say that these issues are covered and as more of these systems are in operation then any of the peripheral concerns are also being handled or mitigated.

With training, again the systems are fully automated. You can of course have manually operated wind propulsion systems and certainly on very small vessels you would be looking at that as an option – particularly in developing countries, but these are up-to-date, state-of-the art solutions ready to deliver for the 2020’s and beyond .

So, for the most part, these are fully automated and there are linked to the energy management systems of the vessels – or increasingly will be – as they are installed. There is even distance monitoring of the operation of the rotors for example. Here the land-based team can identify problems even before the captain or the crew would be seeing those.

In that sense, the shipping industry demands a plugin or push-button solution, and sometimes I joke about this saying but, each system requires two people. One person to press the button and one person to make the tea.

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Q: Do you see any upcoming trends in technology?

Gavin Allwright: There are movable versions of the rotors, rail systems, containerised or modular systems (we’ve seen some of these now on sea trials), and retractables too. These designs and developments are interesting because as they fit in well with different types of vessels with different operational profiles.

You won’t necessarily look at doing a containerised or flip-up version on a cruise ship or a tanker, but you may well do this on small container vessels or even potentially big container vessels or smaller container vessels or ferries that have a fair amount of deck space and opportunities to clip those on.

The modular systems which we are seeing coming through right now are the containerised versions that clip-on and clip-off. You can literally put it on for a voyage and take it off within 45 minutes for another voyage that you maybe rather going into the wind or where you have an operational constraint.

Rotors could also be modular as they are very easy to put on and take off. The base plate which serves as the foundation will need to be fixed but the rotor could potentially be upgraded after some years of operation. If a vessel is going to be operating in the tropics where the benefits are not so great, a rig or a rotor could be moved to another vessel. As we see wind propulsion becoming more integrated into the industry, this type of solution could become more prevalent

I believe this could also be linked in with other energy production systems on a vessel.

For example, if you have an electric propulsion train on a vessel. That makes the handling of the less predictable wind patterns much easier. Every second of that operation, different amounts of energy can be supplied through wind propulsion and that can be easily graded by the electric motors and the energy management system. This also makes additional power input possible, from solar coatings or materials (or sails) to the possibility of on-board generation of power from drop generators powered by excess wind thrust. What is interesting is that I have seen some designs recently for some vessels where there is a plug-in energy system.

At present that would probably be diesel-electric, but you can literally have these as containers on your deck, and you then have fuel cells, battery banks, LNG, or ammonia systems. You can literally plug-in to the electrical propulsion train, creating an easy to plug-in electric-hybrid system.

Q: If you could look into a crystal ball, where do you think wind propulsion will be in 10 years’ time? Where would you like it to be?

Gavin Allwright: An EU commissioned report has outlined the potential wind propulsion market by 2030, which could amount to 3,700 to 10,700 installed systems on bulkers, tankers and container vessels, associated with approx. 3.5 to 7.5 Mt CO2 savings in these three main segments of the shipping industry.

This would equate to about a third of the fleet having some form of wind propulsion retrofitted, or on new builds, coming through as well. That projection was made in 2016-2017 before the worldwide sulphur cap was agreed, 18 months before a numerical carbon target in shipping was thought of, and I think the ground has shifted.

I would say the target of 10,000 installed systems is very achievable. I think it could be higher than that as the assessment looked at only 4 types of wind propulsion rig and technologies and didn’t look at all technologies.

“…in the 2020’s that wind propulsion technology will probably be in the realm of a £300 million per year market. By the 2050s those estimates rise to £2 billion per year.”

If we incorporate other segments of the shipping industry and small vessels, we could be seeing significantly larger numbers of vessels in the world fleet with wind assist or primary wind propulsion by 2030.

The UK governments recent Clean Maritime Plan released in July 2019 specifies in the 2020’s that wind propulsion technology will probably be in the realm of a £300 million per year market. By the 2050s those estimates rise to £2 billion per year.

That’s not bad growth for 30 years, and we view that as a conservative estimate of where the market will be.

Air lubrication has a similar projection, with alternative fuels being estimated to be in the region of £8 billion by the 2050s.

Where would I like it to be, well obviously at the top end of those estimates, but the most important thing is that the sooner the industry recognises the potential savings and moves beyond very short-term return-on-investment considerations, the sooner we will see wind propulsion technologies helping to facilitate the transformation to a decarbonised fleet that we all agree is the future of the industry.

In part two of the interview with Gavin we speak to him about the effect of social and legislative changes and assess the opportunities and challenges of green finance. Gavin also shares the 5 P’s for the successful adoption of sustainable development and improve adoption of wind-assist and primary wind propulsion solutions. (Read part two here)


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