A High Seas Comeback for Sails? Shipping Industry Sees Potential


As the shipping industry struggles with high fuel costs and tepid demand, some innovators say that high-tech sails may hold the secret to cheaper and cleaner fuel.

Chief among them is a group of maritime veterans whose company Windship Technology is working to revive the wind-powered merchant ship with sails made from metal alloys and carbon fibers.

A handful of companies have tried harnessing wind energy for shipping, though the technology is still largely in its initial development phase. Concepts have ranged from giant parachutes to towering cylindrical rotors. Rolls Royce and U.K.-based B9 Shipping are jointly developing a sail-natural gas hybrid system concept for small cargo ships. London-based Windship is unique in punching into a higher weight class—of long-haul cargo vessels larger than 40,000 tons, and up to a quarter-mile long.

Cargo ships can range from as small as 3,000 tons to more than 400,000 tons and carry three types of freight—bulk items like minerals and coal, liquids like crude oil and fuels, and containers for consumer goods. These ocean-going ships often travel on specific trade routes with specific destinations and cargos—such as the massive 380,000-400,000-ton Valemax ships used to carry iron ore to China from Brazil.

Guy Walker, co-founder of Windship, says the company’s wing-like sails can generate 2 ½ times the power of a conventional canvas sails.

Still, its early days and Windship has only finished computerized modeling, and now plans to set up in Singapore to build and test a prototype by the second quarter of 2015.

“We are in close discussions with owners and charterers who have a more open mindset and can see what an economic advantage really looks like,” Mr. Walker said. He said Singapore is an “obvious center” and “fertile ground” in which to base its activities.

The city state favors green initiatives and has floated several environment-friendly shipping initiatives, which include monetary grants. But Windship is yet to qualify for any of these programs.

The shipping industry has been in the doldrums over the last few years and struggled to recover from the global financial crisis that sapped global consumption and trade levels, which in turn stifled demand for transportation and shipping. Shipping companies had invested billions before the downturn in expanding capacity in anticipation of demand that never materialized. This overcapacity weakened freight costs even more and as the global economy recovers slowly, demand still hasn’t risen to pre-crisis levels.

Oil prices were the final problem, keeping well above $100 a barrel since the downturn and eating into shipping margins. Shipping economics depend heavily on fuel costs that make up as much as 80% of total freight expenses at current oil prices.

A large cargo vessel, such as a Panamax ship or a Long Range 1 tanker with a dead weight tonnage of up to 74,000 tons, burns around 37 tons of shipping fuel a day. That’s $6.1 million of fuel in a single year.

Windship estimated that three of its rigs costing a total of around $10.5 million can cut fuel costs by a third or around $2 million a year on an existing ship, and by half on a new ship, based on 10-year wind patterns analyzed for more than 3,000 sea routes.

“The saving has to be so great that it is a no brainer,” Mr. Walker said.

Ships move 90% of everything traded globally, and shipping rates are based on specific trade routes. Mr. Walker said a Valemax trade route that moves 170 million tons of iron-ore a year on 300 large ships can save more than two million tons of fuel oil per year. That’s $1.5 billion worth of fuel.

Windship says it can also help ships meet tighter emissions regulations.

Ships burn around 10% of the world’s oil, but are more polluting because they burn bunkers–the dirtiest fuel in the world. The maritime sector accounts for about 3.3% of global man-made emissions, according to the International Maritime Organization which aims to cut shipping emissions by 30% by 2020.

So what’s the biggest obstacle for Windship?

As with every new technology the capital for Windship to do an actual working demonstration will be a problem to find, Dimitris Argyros, lead environmental specialist at Lloyd’s Register said. Lloyd’s had conducted some of the modeling tests for Windship.

Moreover, no wind-based innovation has succeeded so far. A sail-based design by Danish marine architects Knud E. Hansen didn’t materialize because of a lengthy payback period. Its senior naval architect Jesper Kanstrup said projects with wing masts, rotors or kites keep popping up on a regular basis, but they have a hard time catching the interest of ship owners.

Other experts, such as Peter Lundahl Rasmussen, senior marine technical officer at BIMCO, a trade body, cited safety concerns during storms, reduced visibility, unwieldy masts that obstruct cargo handling, maintenance costs and constant route changes.

Perhaps the biggest hurdle for Windship will be finding a willing test partner.

When asked if it would be willing to adopt new wind-based technologies, shipping major Maersk said such systems could yield interesting fuel savings, but cautioned that the technology is still at a conceptual stage.

“Most of these technologies require considerable investments, so they should yield substantial fuel saving benefits for them to become attractive,” Jasper Boessenkool, Head of Strategic R&D at Maersk Maritime Technology said.

The Windship consortium includes Robert Elliott, chairman of law-firm Linklaters, David Barrow-an independant consultant, Lars Carlsson-former chairman of the trade body Intertanko and yacht designer Simon Rogers.

Source from : Wall Street Journal