Monday, January 07, 2013

Polluting The Oceans-- Or Cleaning Them Up With Solar Powered Ships


I just got back from India and one of the things that astounded me is how the progress that had been made towards cleaning up Delhi's notorious air pollution seems to have stopped-- even gone backwards. The city seems as polluted as it was when I was first there in 1970, sad considering all the progress that had been made in the last few decades. Delhi usually makes it ono every credible list of the world's most polluted cities and this year I can attest to the fact that things have gotten even worse. A list from the University of Vermont ranks it the 10th most polluted big city in a list that includes Baghdad, Bandar Seri Begawan in Brunei, Dhaka in Bangladesh, Karachi, Lagos, Mexico City, Moscow, Maputo (Mozambique), Mumbai and Delhi. (China and Iran got off pretty easy on this list, though both have cities that normally show up on te world's most polluted lists.) As the Vermont study says, "Careless government and people contribute to every gram of pollutant that flies in the air or floating on their water resources."

I was astounded to learn while I was India that each year, just one large container ship will emit cancer and asthma-causing pollutants equivalent to that of 50 million cars. According to an article in the Guardian, "Confidential data from maritime industry insiders based on engine size and the quality of fuel typically used by ships and cars shows that just 15 of the world's biggest ships may now emit as much pollution as all the world's 760 million cars. Low-grade ship bunker fuel (or fuel oil) has up to 2,000 times the sulphur content of diesel fuel used in US and European automobiles... US academic research which showed that pollution from the world's 90,000 cargo ships leads to 60,000 deaths a year in the US alone and costs up to $330 billion per year in health costs from lung and heart diseases."
Europe, which has some of the busiest shipping lanes in the world, has dramatically cleaned up sulphur and nitrogen emissions from land-based transport in the past 20 years but has resisted imposing tight laws on the shipping industry, even though the technology exists to remove emissions. Cars driving 15,000km a year emit approximately 101 grammes of sulphur oxide gases (or SOx) in that time. The world's largest ships' diesel engines which typically operate for about 280 days a year generate roughly 5,200 tonnes of SOx.

...Shipping emissions have escalated in the past 15 years as China has emerged as the world's manufacturing capital. A new breed of intercontinental container ship has been developed which is extremely cost-efficient. However, it uses diesel engines as powerful as land-based power stations but with the lowest quality fuel.

"Ship pollution affects the health of communities in coastal and inland regions around the world, yet pollution from ships remains one of the least regulated parts of our global transportation system," said James Corbett, professor of marine policy at the University of Delaware, one of the authors of the report which helped persuade the US government to act.
Another study shows that just 16 super cargo ships cause as much pollution as all the cars in the world. Huge ships bringing manufactured goods from China are enormous in size and enormous in the amounts of lung-clogging pollution they are pumping into the air. And they use the cheapest and most unhealthy high sulpher fuel-- long banned from land-based use-- to bring, along with their cheap manufactured products, acid rain, as well as lung problems, inflammation, cancer and heart disease, all the world's most dangerous killers. And the problem is getting worse, not better. Ocean shipping is causing a significant amount of climate change emissions and is virtually unregulated. Is there anything that can be done about it? As a matter of fact, there is. The future is electric boats, powered by the sun. Solar-powered yachts and passenger boats are already being built and sold Hong Kong already has 3 solar-powered ferries in operation that are similar to hybrid cars and were developed by Solar Sailor, an Australian company. Electricity is created by solar panels and stored in a battery to power the engines while the vessel comes in and out of the harbour, reverting to diesel when the ships are on he open sea.
One of the fleet, the Solar Albatross, sports two sails covered in solar panels that can be raised to harness both the sun and the wind to further reduce reliance on fossil fuel.

Robert Dane, Solar Sailor's founder, says that the technology offers ship owners huge fuel savings and has the potential to be used on all types of vessels from humble ferries and luxury super-yachts to bulk carriers shipping iron ore and navy patrol ships.

"I think in 50 to 100 years, all ships will have solar sails," he says.

"It just makes so much sense. You're out there on the water and there's so much light bouncing around and there's a lot more energy in the wind than in the sun."

...And in Australia, he hopes to clinch deals this year with the operator of a river ferry and install the technology on two ocean research vessels.

There are other solar-powered ships in operation such as the catamaran Turanor PlanetSolar, which is circumnavigating the globe exclusively by harnessing the power of the sun. However, Mr Dane says the technology developed by his company is the most commercially tested.

More ambitiously, Mr Dane says the company will soon announce a trial with an Australian mining company to attach a 40m (130ft) tall solar sail to a newly built bulk carrier that will ship iron ore and other raw materials to China. [See photo below]

He likens the sail to a "giant windmill blade" that would be covered in solar panels and fold down into the vessel when it is docking and transferring cargo.

By harnessing the wind, the company estimates that the giant sail could shave 20% to 40%, or around A$3m (£2m; $3.1m), off a ship's annual fuel bill when travelling at 16 knots (18mph), with the solar panels contributing an extra 3% to 6% saving.

...If, as Mr Dane hopes, the technology is adopted more widely, it also has the potential to clean up the shipping industry, which environmental campaigners claim emits more greenhouse gases than commercial aviation.

Roughly 50,000 ships carry 90% of the world's trade cargo, and these ships tend to burn a heavily polluting oil known as bunker fuel.

"It's like tar, you have to heat it up to make it liquid so it will flow," says Mr Dane.

"These incredibly powerful engines run on incredibly cheap but dirty fuel so what we can do in the short-term is to ensure they use less fuel."

The industry has proved hard for governments to regulate as it does not fall into one jurisdiction, however the United Nations International Maritime Organization has recently introduced new regulations on fuel efficiency and sulphur emissions that could drive demand for Solar Sailor's technology.

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