Emission Impossible

As 2020 draws nearer, the pressure on shipowners grows.


Published Apr 28, 2018 5:55 PM by Mia Bennett

(Article originally published in Jan/Feb 2018 edition.)

In a world of globalized trade, ships are often seen as a green alternative for moving goods from one place to another. As vessels glide across the oceans, they tend to remain “out of sight, out of mind” except when they come into port. Compared to exhaust-spewing trucks and trains rattling every day through local neighborhoods and airplanes roaring loudly overhead, ships seem a pleasant and even romantic mode of transportation.

Small Fish?

If only their carbon footprint is considered, ships are more environmentally friendly than trucks, trains and airplanes. The average vessel emits only 10-40 grams of carbon dioxide per metric ton of freight per kilometer of transportation, lower than trains and trucks and far lower than the average Boeing 747, which emits a whopping 500 grams to move the same weight over the same distance. 

By total volume of carbon dioxide, too, ships are small fish. In the U.S., according to the Environmental Protection Agency, ships account for only two percent of all greenhouse gas emissions compared to 23 percent for medium- and heavy-duty trucks and four percent for airplanes.

If sulfur emissions are considered, however, the picture grows hazier. International shipping accounts for 10 percent of global sulfur emissions. A 2009 study led by researchers from the University of Delaware and the Rochester Institute of Technology found that, without controls on sulfur emissions, 87,000 premature deaths would occur in a single year. Those fatalities would mostly be concentrated along coastlines in Europe and Asia, which are home to some of the world’s busiest ports and densest populations. 

In Hong Kong, where 40,000 ships come and go every year, ships accounted for 59 percent of sulfur emissions, 37 percent of nitrous oxide emissions and 23 percent of carbon dioxide emissions in 2015. If the world’s global shipping fleet were a country, it would finish right after China, the U.S., and Canada, according to a study published in Environmental Science and Technology in 2013. 

Pressure has been building on the industry to clean up its act as it continues to burn through enormous amounts of high-sulfur heavy fuel oil every year. In 2012, ships consumed 228 million tons of the sticky stuff. In response, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) is taking action. Sulfur oxides and other aerosol emissions, namely greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and methane), are the chief concerns. 

Sulfur oxides react with other compounds in the atmosphere to form particulate matter pollution, resulting in negative environmental effects like acid rain and poor air quality. Greenhouse gases absorb and emit infrared radiation, increasing the Earth’s temperature. Reducing these two forms of aerosol emissions is seen as key to solving some of the biggest environmental challenges of the modern era.

In a landmark 2008 decision, the IMO decided to lower the sulfur cap for ship fuel from 3.5 percent to 0.5 percent, effective January 1, 2020. A review of the proposed cap in 2016 confirmed there would be enough low-sulfur fuel on the market by 2020 to meet the new standard, meaning there would be no delay in implementation. 

The cost of doing so, however, will be steep. Nicholas Confuorto, President & Chief Operating Officer of New Jersey-based CR Ocean Engineering, contends, “In one case I heard $800 to $900 a ton for low-sulfur fuel. So for ships burning $5 or $6 million of fuel every year, they’re going to see their numbers double.” 

Scrubbers, Anyone?

As an alternative to purchasing what will likely be pricey, low-sulfur fuel, approximately 24 companies, among them CR Ocean, offer scrubbers. They are already economical. Even with the relatively low cost of fuel at the moment, shipowners installing scrubbers are paying them off and “still making money,” Confuorto says. He adds that, as the price of fuel rises, “There’s no doubt that every shipping company would want to put scrubbers on.” 

Foreship, a naval architecture and engineering consultancy, estimates that one-in-three ships will use scrubbers by 2030, ten years after the cap comes into effect.

For the time being, however, and with the notable exception of cruise ships and ferries, ship operators are dallying in adopting the potentially money-saving technology. Confuorto notes, “When you look at the projection that there were going to be thousands of scrubbers installed, in reality there are only a few hundred, maybe 500 or 600 that are being put on ships, and that is a big difference. Because people are still waiting. A rush in 2019 is inevitable.” 

He warned operators not to wait. As the 2020 date approaches, the capacity to install scrubbers will be limited in terms of engineers able to supply and design them and shipyards available to install them. Ole Bulien heads up the incinerators and scrubbers sales team at TeamTec AS, a leading manufacturer of stripping ejectors and waste incinerators. He, too, underscores the importance of acting sooner rather than later: “A retrofit would have a minimum six months lead time plus transit time to yard.” There are some alternatives to scrubbers, however, and Bulien points to improvements in bunker capacity for low-sulfur fuels: “For shipowners, it’s just a matter of getting all the numbers for calculating the best solution relative to their trade down on paper – or these days, onto a spreadsheet. This has to fit the strategy of the company/vessel and the market outlook.” 

Sweden’s Alfa Laval also offers scrubbers with proven effects. Its exhaust gas-cleaning solution, PureSOx, is a complete SOx scrubber platform that removes the pollutant from a ship’s engine and boiler exhaust. So far, PureSOx has been installed on over 80 vessels, allowing them to comply with sulfur limits. Rene Diks, Managing Director of Inert Gas & Exhaust Gas Cleaning Systems, says, “PureSOx has a sulfur removal rate of more than 98 percent and particulate matter trapping of up to 80 percent. With a payback time of one to three years, PureSOx also offers financial benefits compared to competitors using low-sulfur fuels.” 

However, Diks too warned of the difficulties scrubber suppliers may face if the shipping industry continues to be slow on the uptake: “The biggest challenge we foresee is if the market stays in wait-and-see mode and places scrubber orders last-minute but still expects a reliable installation before January 1, 2020.” He says Alfa Laval’s experience with the enactment of emission control areas (ECAs) in 2015 will help guide it in the current ramp-up. The 2015 ECAs mandated 0.1 percent sulfur caps in the Baltic and North Seas, most of the U.S. and Canadian coastlines, and the U.S. Caribbean.

Fuel-Changeover Technology

Navigating between areas with different sulfur caps comes at a cost. A ship sailing from Hong Kong (0.5 percent) across the Pacific (3.5 percent) to the Port of Los Angeles (0.1 percent) would encounter at least three different regulatory zones. To comply with varying caps in a cost-efficient manner, ships can employ fuel-changeover technology, which allows a rapid switch between HFO and low-sulfur fuels. 

One such solution is Auramarine’s FuelSafeTM, which works at the push of a button. FuelSafeTM is available for newbuilds, upgrades and retrofits, making it particularly versatile. “Our FuelSafeTM ensures that the requirements of the engine manufacturer for a safe fuel changeover are fulfilled throughout the process,” says CEO Ole Skatka Jensen. “This means keeping the fuel viscosity and temperature-change rate within the given range.” 

He adds, however, that actually complying with ECAs is up to the vessel operator: “Auramarine supports compliance with MARPOL Annex VI and wants to contribute by making the changeover as safe and easy as possible. The decisions on initiating the process when operating in and out of emission control areas are, of course, made by the vessel.”

As time goes on, sulfur caps will likely continue to grow stricter. The Mediterranean and the coastlines of Norway, Japan and Mexico are areas where the creation of new ECAs has been considered, and particularly the Mediterranean, where cruising has been growing rapidly. Since 2000, cruise passenger movements and cruise ship berths have more than tripled. The ultramarine waters, white sand beaches and Roman ruins of places like Greece and Croatia attract cruise passengers by the millions. 

Yet as more ships ply Homer’s “wine-dark sea,” they exacerbate the amount of ultrafine particles, sulfur and nitrogen oxides, and black carbon in the air. In March 2017, a number of non-governmental organizations from the Mediterranean and beyond formed an alliance called the Clean Cruise Ship Network. Together, they adopted the Rome Declaration, vowing to make the Mediterranean an ECA like the Baltic Sea, ban heavy fuel oil, and make scrubber technology mandatory. But the shipping industry, already trying to contend with the coming imposition of a global sulfur cap, may not be immediately favorable to even tighter regulation in one of the world’s busiest seas. 

“The Tang of Untainted Sea Air”

With less than two years to go until the IMO sulfur cap comes into effect, shipowners must weigh financial and time constraints in deciding between using cleaner fuels or installing scrubbers. Captains, too, will have the responsibility of ensuring compliance with MARPOL and IMO regulations. American author and activist Helen Keller once wrote of the “the tang of the untainted, fresh, and free sea air.” It’s up to shipowners, captains, policymakers and activists to keep the ocean breeze from smelling instead of bitter sulfur, nitrogen and black carbon. – MarEx 

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.