Windships – Will There be a New Age of Sail?
The centuries-long Age of Sail met an abrupt end with the advent of the engine, the fuel for which has long been cheap, abundant, and, until recently, perceived as consequence free. Diesel has since ruled the ocean and global shipping.
There have been a few modest attempts to install sails or wind-assisted technology on ‘modern’ commercial ships. In 1925, the Baden Baden — which was fitted with two 50-ft-tall, 9-ft-wide towers called Flettner rotors — crossed the Atlantic. “Billions of horsepower absolutely free! Blue coal,” exclaimed the rotor’s inventor, Anton Flettner. The German navy, which had initially expressed interest in the technology, ultimately withdrew its support, citing the cheap cost of fuel. It would take nearly 75 years before the maritime industry experimented, in earnest, with Flettner rotors again.
In 2014, Wind+Wing Tech did a six-month demonstration with this trimaran in association with Bay Area Air Quality Management District. Sailing eight hours a day, five days a week, WWT collected data on all Bay Area ferry routes, and showed a reduction of over 40% in fuel use in normal San Francisco Bay winds.
Over the years, there have been a handful of novelty operations that ship cargo by sail, many of which are viable business models, but are ultimately niche operations infinitesimal in scale compared to global maritime shipping, which moves approximately 90% of all the world’s goods — and is one of the world’s biggest polluters. “Research has shown that just one of the largest container ships can emit as much pollution as about 50 million cars. What’s more, the 15 largest ships emit as much nitrogen oxide and sulfur oxide as the world’s 760 million cars,” the BBC reported last year.
The ‘Buckau’ was later renamed the ‘Baden Baden’, and was fitted with Flettner rotors. The cylinders are spun along their long axis to use the “Magnus effect,” where lift is generated at right angles to the wind to drive the ship forward.
But there may be a new age of industrial sail on the horizon. Last year, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) announced a plan to reduce carbon emissions in the global shipping industry by at least 50% by 2050. It’s not clear what authority the IMO, a United Nations agency, has to enforce its ambitious goal, which will require cleaner fuel, more efficient ships, and alternative propulsion — including wind. But the IMO is not alone. In December 2018, the Maersk Group, the world’s largest shipping line, announced its “goal to reach carbon neutrality by 2050.”
“It’s an exciting time,” said Gavin Allwright, the secretary of the International Windship Association (IWSA), a nonprofit that works with governments and companies offering wind-assisted innovations. “Just a few years ago,” Allwright said, “the question from commercial shippers used to be, ‘Why wind? Why should we be doing this?’ A year ago the question became, ‘How do we get this on ships?’ What I say to them now is, ‘Your competitors are testing wind, why aren’t you?'”
There are several different types of wind-assisted technologies that are in the research-and-development phase, or are already in use. One company fitted a few ships with large kites. Another startup is experimenting with square-rigged sails in self-contained units mounted on at-decked ships. Other businesses have proposed a variety of wingsails or foils that can be deployed from mobile containers. And yet another group has developed a turbine that’s able to power and store wind energy. Wind-assisted options generally save 20% to 50% in fuel consumption, and provide a similar reduction in emissions.
A Bay Area company has also weighed in. Wind+Wing Technologies (WWT), is trying to implement two innovations for commercial vessels — a wind-assisted hybrid ferry, as well as a wing that can be fitted to commercial ships. Founded by Adventure Cat Sailing Charters president Jay Gardner, WWT has been pushing for clean-energy ferries on the Bay for over a decade.
“It was just so obvious,” said Gardner. “You’ve got this wind resource on the Bay. Why don’t we commercialize it?” Gardner admitted that trying to get Bay Area ferry companies to adopt options to harness the wind — in tandem with either traditional diesel or electric propulsion — has been surprisingly, if not shockingly difficult. “Why wouldn’t you have wind-assist and save 50% on fuel and emissions?” Gardner wondered. We often hear this baffled sentiment from advocates of green alternatives: Why wouldn’t you use clean, renewable and ultimately cheaper energy?
Maltese Falcon’ on San Francisco Bay in 2008. All that sail can be controlled from a simple panel.
Advancements in materials and automated systems have made wind options more practicable. But implementing them is also a question of will. What’s more, any sense of urgency to move toward wind-assist is inherently tied to the cost of fuel. On the rare occasions that diesel prices have shot up over the decades, ferries and shipping lines have scrambled for options.
“Back in 2008, when the price of diesel spiked to $4.75 a gallon, I didn’t think wind-assist was going to be a very hard sell at all,” Gardner said. “The top people at Golden Gate Ferry contacted us asking what they could do; they were spending millions more in fuel. But two years before, they wouldn’t have met with you. Now, over a decade later, we’re making progress, we’re doing good. We’re very hopeful and cautiously optimistic that things are going to come to fruition in the near future….
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