COLUMN | Future fuels: it’s anybody’s guess [Grey Power]
As everyone raves on about “net zero” while lighting fires on the pavement outside the IMO building to keep the protesters warm (as the “Just stop oil” fanatics increase the price of glue), it is maybe time to take stock of progress. Who remembers the shipping industry politely pointing out that the wholesale movement of the world fleet from running on fossil fuels would take time and was a change that could not be accomplished by the industry itself? As we have found with other forms of transport and energy provision, it is a whole lot easier to ban things than to provide practical alternatives.
Did governments – queuing up to signal virtuously at climate change festivals – acknowledge the scale of this massive transition and move to assist industry with meaningful research funding to accelerate the change? A sensible and practical mechanism suggested by the International Chamber of Shipping for an international research fund was rejected, perhaps because it was the horrid polluting industry proposing it in the first place.
And apart from the “sticks before carrots” approach of more taxes, levies on fuel users, and the “market based measures” beloved of the European Commission and creative financial manipulators, it has been left to the industry and largely individual shipping companies to get on with it.
“There is no body that can provide any assurance whatsoever that alternative fuel can be made available at the sort of scale that will be needed.”
The industry itself gets precious little recognition of the effort and money being spent to effect the transition and devise a sensible strategy for the way ahead. And in a global and traditionally fragmented industry, there is yet no real industry-wide consensus about how the next generation of deep-sea ships will be fuelled and powered.
It is not that there has been no progress – the industry’s own technologists in the shape of class has done plenty to assist the engine manufacturers in devising sustainable fuels that, all things being equal, could be used.
While LNG has clearly been regarded as a transitional fuel (unsurprisingly attracting plenty of environmentalist nay-sayers) and become unremarkable, and machinery has already been built that is able to use methanol, ammonia, hydrogen and bio-fuels, there is no great confidence that any one of these will provide the key to a decarbonised future afloat. The fuels have been shown to work and their characteristics have been studied, but there is no body or agency that can provide any assurance whatsoever that such a fuel can be made available at the sort of scale that will be needed, and at an affordable price.
There is a sort blind confidence that if the users of ships can be persuaded to pay a bit more for their sea transport, the clean conversion will happen, and almost of its own volition. It has already been grudgingly acknowledged that “green or blue” derivations of these fuels will be expensive and only made available by the use of vast quantities of hopefully “sustainable” electricity. And while it has been recognised that the provision of any of these fuels at scale will require the shipping industry to join the end of a long queue of industrial and energy consumers for the stuff of choice, the future enters a fog of uncertainty once again.
“For a lot of pragmatists, net zero remains something of an aspiration, rather than a firm date in the calendar.”
Outside the few really large shipping industry players, there is some apprehension at the ability of small- or medium-sized ship operators to access their fuel of eventual choice. While an operator the size of Maersk is able to range around the world securing contracts for the green methanol is seems to be betting on, others merely wait and see what the future might bring in the shape of the inevitable regulation.
It is also a very brave ship operator who will commit to one course of action, lest they get it wrong. There are plenty of ships being ordered with machinery capable of operating with an alternative fuel, but precious few actually using it.
Meanwhile, the world seems to be divided into two camps: 1) the virtuous elements who are making efforts (or at least voicing their determination) to phase out hydrocarbon use; and 2) the not inconsiderable number of countries who are still determined to keep drilling, acknowledging the reality that only oil and gas will keep the lights on and their industry operating for the foreseeable future. Check out the activity of the global drilling fleet and where it is currently operating and it is demonstrated that for a lot of pragmatists, net zero remains something of an aspiration, rather than a firm date in the calendar.