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Marine Environment & Fuels

INSIGHT: The growing patchwork interest in marine biofuels

ENERGY security is a growing concern around the world. Geopolitical tensions arise as a result of it, and research into regional solutions tends to increase.

Oil and gas fracking has become a viable alternative in some parts of the world, controversially so for some,  but none-the-less turning energy importers into energy neutral countries, if not energy exporters.

In countries where there is a high dependence on local freight transportation, local energy production provides security in logistics, and it seems there are now pockets of interest in taking the next step, and bringing in biofuels from a variety of different sources into the mix.

During the World Maritime University conference on energy management three different fuel sources were mentioned. None of them offer a global solution for international shipping, but offer the potential for regional security while moving countries in the direction that the UNFCCC’s Paris Agreement suggests.

Cow poo power

On Samsø, an island in the middle of Denmark, there is a project to create biofuel from cow manure and other farm silage, and use it to power the island’s ferry to the mainland. The ferry already uses liquid natural gas. The project leaders are pushing ahead with plans, expecting it to cost up to €10m to complete.

Samsø, is well known as an island community that is already driving to become fossil-fuel free. While its biggest exports are potatoes, cows are, as has been well reported across the world a large producer of methane, and their manure rich in potential energy.

Grass roots

Another source of biofuel for shipping was suggested at the conference – elephant grass. It is fast growing, achieving three meters a year and resembles bamboo. Its leaves are used as livestock food, and already trialled and used globally as a biofuel. It could therefore be considered as a marine fuel in some parts of the world given it has extremely high energy values.

Similarly there was a discussion amongst some delegates, following the presentation by Stena about Stena Germanica, on methanol and bio-methanol.

Stena Germanica is now well recognised as demonstrating the successful ability to run a ferry using methanol. The methanol used is mostly from a hydrocarbon source, but the company does use bio-methanol created by Sweden’s forest industry when it can.

There is also a fleet of methanol carriers, recently delivered to Waterfront Shipping, the shipping division of Vancouver-based Methanex, that have been built to run off their methanol.

Palm Oil

Delegates at the WMU, some of whom are students from all over the world, considered in the sidelines of the event how waste products from palm oil production could be useful in creating added energy security in countries like Indonesia

Indonesia is the largest exporter of palm oil. Official estimates from the Indonesian Palm Oil Producers Association and the government suggest production of 32m tons in 2016, with 27m tons being exported, representing $18.6bn in value.

The government is now pushing producers to export more refined products rather than raw palm oil, by creating levies, reportedly using the finances raised to fund a biodiesel subsidy program. In 2014,  it is reported to have mandated the amount of palm blending in diesel be increased from 7.5% to 10%, and ordered power plants to mix 20%.

There is clearly the scope for Indonesia, and likewise Malaysia, which is the world’s second largest palm oil producer, to consider local shipping in this mix, especially as Malaysia has indicated that domestic shipping is to contribute to its national commitment to meet the Paris Agreement (international shipping is unmentioned in the Paris Agreement, but domestic shipping is within the scope of some of the signatories to the Agreement).

There are of course other examples of biofuel experiments and trials in shipping. Maersk undertook a small research experiment with the US Navy a few years ago, mixing biofuel from algae into the bunkers of a container ship, and in Finland there already exists a vessel, Meri,  owned by shipowner Meriaura that can run off 100% biofuel when it is available. Just like Stena does with its biomethanol, Meriaura has said it seeks its biofuel from refined waste products from the national forestry industry.

Increased pressure: environmental or geo-political

The third greenhouse gas report made for the IMO has highlighted the need for a strong move away from hydrocarbon fuels for shipping, if only for climate change reasons.

The pressure, according to its authors, is that shipping will only have a certain amount of GHG it can emit, assuming it takes its fair share of the responsibility to keep global temperatures to well under the 2 degree limit written in the UNFCCC agreement.

With global trade pressuring fleet growth, the demands for a reduced global footprint will only grow beyond what current fuel saving tools can deliver.

Shipping has also to see if the IMO’s GHG roadmap and its plans to amass CO2 emission data will lead to further regulations to meet those expectations.

Then there is the geopolitical pressure that is building up.

Geopolitical uncertainties increase the fear of conflict and increased national demand for secure energy sources. For countries that have a high dependence on imported energy sources, research into alternatives may become increasingly attractive; shipping of course being a lifeline for some is likely to be part of that thinking.



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