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January 4, 2023

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The problems of being future-proof

Investing in anything carries an element of risk. Next generation technology will fall in price and grow in functionality the moment you buy the current model; the car you are considering offers good performance but will you need to pay to drive it in your local city centre next year?

Expand this reasoning to the alternative fuels needed to power the shipping industry through the remainder of the 21st century and the choices become bewildering, the risks colossal.

This can to some extent already be seen in the development of LNG as fuel. A fossil fuel but which emits no carbon or traditional atmospheric pollutants, it suffers from methane leakage in supply chain, causing potential climate change far worse than CO2.

Initially championed in some Nordic countries which subsidised its adoption, it comfortably adds a third of the newbuilding price to any ship suitable for its use and now risks pariah status thanks to green groups and NGOs who warn it should be forbidden for use in conventional, non-renewable form.

That natural gas still makes up a large part of the European Union’s lower carbon energy strategy is confusing enough. The impact on supplies of the war in Ukraine has made it a hot commodity (though prices have eased recently) which just leaves most people scratching their heads.

The story of LNG as fuel is as a classic ‘first-mover’ which, subsidies aside, carries all the risk and only some of the reward. A green profile when the ship is moving is possible because emissions are currently not counted ‘well-to-wake’ only ‘tank-to-wake’ though this may change.

The message is not necessarily that one fuel is right and the other wrong, but rather that the industry needs to understand much more about the fuels needed for decarbonization before it makes the biggest bets since the transition from sail to steam.

It’s a problem studied by the Maritime Technologies Forum (MTF), which has concluded there is a critical knowledge gap between the perceived feasibility of alternative fuels such as bio-methanol and green ammonia and their readiness for adoption.

Writing in industry newspaper Tradewinds, Georgios Plevrakis of ABS and Knut Arild Hareide of the Norwegian Maritime Authority state that the widespread adoption of alternative fuels in shipping will “require the industry to rapidly progress a series of pilot studies and design new training protocols in order to collect the data needed to guide their safe implementation.”

The MTF — a group of flag states and classification societies — undertook the research as a collaborative exercise that sought to assess the feasibility of the alternative fuels expected to support the decarbonisation of the maritime industry

Four fuels were selected for assessment, fossil marine gas oil (MGO), fossil LNG, bio-methanol and green ammonia. The framework covers eight categories of evaluation: sustainability and environmental, safety, security, economic feasibility, regulatory, people, technology status and engineering.

The research found insufficient data around three key criteria required for the application of green ammonia and bio-methanol – sustainability and environmental, economic feasibility and people. The report concluded that while the alternative fuels scored higher in terms of sustainability, their resilience to disruption was clearly much lower than the fossil-based fuels with an established supply and value chain.

The resulting heatmaps produced by MTF provide industry stakeholders with simplified identification of hot spots that require more attention, helping guide future industry efforts.

For example, the study found that there is insufficient data on production and availability of green ammonia and bio-methanol – and in both cases, the corresponding economic feasibility criteria are not met.

While regulations can incentivise the uptake of alternative fuels, there are numerous obstacles to be faced, the authors add. “Alternative fuels must also overcome a number of challenges to achieve economic feasibility. This in particular suggests the need to prioritize more research and pilot projects to gain practical experience and scale.”

Finally, because the introduction of alternative fuels will lead to a paradigm shift in shipboard operations compared to the established operations involving fossil fuels, there is a need for development of skills and competencies and the establishment of new training modules with corresponding certification to help fill the knowledge gap, they add.

The latter exists for LNG and methanol but would benefit from further development, while for ammonia there is a lack of training in place due to insufficient experience and data. New modules and certification will be needed to reflect the particular risks and requirements for handling ammonia.

The MTF research underscores the commonality of the view that considerable work remains to be completed before alternative fuels can be safely adopted. The research does not advocate for one fuel type over another; most stakeholders agree achieving decarbonisation will necessitate using all the options available.

Instead, by applying MTF’s framework to alternative fuels, the report provides a critical snapshot on readiness and identifies the gaps where the industry needs to refine its focus and increase research efforts in order to develop economic and technologically feasible fuel options for the future.


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