By Stephanie Lesage, Corporate Secretary at Airseas

One of the most positive shipping and climate stories of 2022 has to be the rapid rise of wind propulsion in shipping. Capacity for wind-powered cargo vessels has smashed through the million-dwt mark – a small step for sure when compared to the size of the global fleet, but a great leap for new technology.

The last few months have seen major players like COSCO, BHP and MOL join the ranks of wind propulsion backers alongside K-Line, Louis Dreyfus Armateurs, Oldendorff, Scandlines and Cargill. Cargo owners, charterers, shipowners and shipyards alike are all coming to realise the benefits of wind-assisted propulsion in shipping’s journey towards a lower carbon future.

An encouraging start is not enough, however. 2022 has been once again dominated by heatwaves and extreme weather, it’s clear that the planet needs faster actions on all fronts, from all industries. Moreover, shipping is still lagging behind what is necessary to meet its decarbonisation targets. According to research carried out by the Maritime Transition Scenarios collaboration, under the current trajectory, the shipping industry will fail to meet the IMO targets of 50% reductions by 2050. It may meet Paris targets under the most optimistic scenarios, but this isn’t guaranteed.

Let me be clear; tackling climate change is a team sport, and no solution has a monopoly on decarbonisation. Increased R&D, better routing, smarter regulation, retrofits, and new fuels are all part of the solution. Bearing this in mind, let me throw out one of the most impactful changes that shipping could make today.

Shipping – and specifically, I’m talking about regulators – should start treating wind power as a propulsion source, rather than an efficiency measure.

Sunset from a ship

Propulsion, not efficiency

This might seem like a minor technical distinction, but it’s an important one and one that could drastically reduce the maritime sector’s carbon emissions over the course of years, and influence its pathway for the coming decades.
As the IMO and EU review their flagship emissions reduction strategies, they must fully recognise the role that wind propulsion can and should play in shipping’s decarbonisation pathway. Current regulatory frameworks are largely based on fuels – this is where the bulk of incentives, regulatory scrutiny, and funding, is focused, as the EU Parliament’s recent vote to cut the greenhouse gas intensity of energy in marine fuels demonstrates.

We need this. The only way we will see a completely decarbonised shipping industry is if we can move away from fossil fuels.

However, fuels are not the only form of energy out there. Ships don’t exist to burn fuels – they exist to move goods on the world’s oceans. All fuels are, simply, a means of transferring one form of energy to another. For example, many of the future fuels on offer – green hydrogen or ammonia- rely on electricity generated by sources such as solar or wind.

Energy-centric approach

So with wind, why not go straight to the source? If we adopt an energy-centric rather than a fuel-centric approach, it becomes easier to include wind in the mix, with the same result – propulsion energy for ships that won’t increase GHG emissions. Converting wind into electricity, then fuel, then transporting it and using it for fuel is far less efficient than simply capturing wind in the first place. Wind propulsion may not be a total power solution, but when we consider buying propulsion – not just fuel – the case for inclusion in shipping’s future is obvious.

The timing here is crucial. Wind propulsion is proven and available, and stands ready to deliver results fast, across the fleets we have now, no matter the vessel type. It’s worth noting that the proportion of the global fleet that can use wind, is growing as new technologies mature. As IWSA notes, previous assessments of wind power have also underestimated the number of vessels that can use wind power. The Seawing is a great example of the universal applicability of wind power, as it can be fitted on virtually any vessel, in any segment. Wind power can – and should – complement all alternative fuels.

Seawing takes off from the deck of Louis Dreyfus Armateurs' vessel Ville de Bordeaux © PolaRYSE
Seawing takes off from the deck of Louis Dreyfus Armateurs’ vessel Ville de Bordeaux © PolaRYSE

The technology is also ready and available now, and there’s no better time to start using it than the present. As the NGO Transport & Environment commented recently, urging MEPs to recognise the power of wind – “As these renewable technologies are commercially available today, they offer the industry an excellent way of reducing emissions while improving the business case of green fuels. Once again, MEPs have a chance to encourage investments in green technologies, by boosting rewards for the use of wind propulsion.”

By treating wind propulsion as a propulsion source, rather than an efficiency measure, we can start to harness wind across the sector – a widely available, free source of energy – directly from the source.