The shift towards electric mobility has become more prominent in the past few years. Electric ships – just like electric cars and scooters – are about to transform the shipping industry by drastically cutting carbon emissions and clearing the way for significant climate progress.
Maritime transport, which is said to be the backbone of international trade and the global economy, is estimated to offer prolific growth opportunities to the electric ship market players over the next few years. Around 80% of the global trade in terms of volume and over 70% of global trade by value are carried by sea.
With that said, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) forecasts that the growth in maritime trade volumes is expected to expand at an annual rate of over 2.4% between 2022-2026. However, with such promising business prospects in the marine transport sector comes huge amounts of exhaust gases, such as nitrogen oxides, sulfur oxides and carbon dioxide (CO2) from container and cruise ships, cargo vessels, and oil tankers that run on heavy diesel oil. If left unaddressed, the global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions could increase by 50% by 2050, estimates OECD.
Electric ships: The next big thing in the shipping sector
Compared to traditional fossil fuels, marine diesel contains much less sulfur but is much more expensive. Estimates are made that future carbon-neutral fuels could be more expensive than the current residual fuels. In addition to this, based on the current rate of consumption, mineral oil used to produce diesel could likely get exhausted in the next few decades.
Electric ships are an environment-friendly alternative to oil-powered ships and are touted to be suitable for inland shipping as well as for oceangoing ships in the distant future. One of the key advantages of battery operation ships is that they use electricity, which is much cheaper than oil, especially marine diesel. Apart from this, electrical machines used in these ships consist of fewer components, are less vulnerable to faults, and have a lower rate of wear and tear, which eventually results in reduced energy loss and higher efficiency.
Electric boats and ships can also take the assistance of other energy sources and technologies such as rechargeable batteries, liquefied natural gas (LNG) or solar power to improve their range and performance. With new developments in battery technology, the electric ships market could accrue commendable growth in the future.
Autonomous electric ships becoming a reality
Autonomous ships are now becoming a much-discussed topic in the shipping industry. Described as a self-sailing crewless vessel, autonomous ships have a myriad of advantages like the elimination of human error, reduced crewing costs, and more efficient use of space in ship design. With the introduction of autonomous shipping technologies, marine collisions could reduce dramatically and potentially be eliminated over time.
Electric ship companies are already ramping up efforts toward developing autonomous ships. In 2022, China’s first autonomous containership entered into service following months of extensive trials. Made by Qingdao-based smart ship technology company, Navigation Brilliance (Brinav), the ship has been put into operation by Shandong Port Group on a short-sea route between Qingdao and Dongjiakou.
Use of advanced technology and features like intelligent collision avoidance, independent route planning, remote-control operations, 5G, satellites, and other multi-network systems is expected to speed up the development of autonomous electric ships in time.
Benefits of commercial electric ships
The use of other energy sources such as hydrogen and electricity come out to be a more efficient and cleaner option for powering future ships.
Some inland vessels – mainly ferries and pleasure boats – are already sailing using electricity. In Canada, two electric ferries were ordered and shipped from Romania to Ontario for carrying passengers and vehicles across Kingston-Wolfe Island and Milhaven-Amherst Island routes. Built by Dutch company Damen, the ferries can transport 75 and 40 vehicles respectively as the company works with the local government to install charging facilities and seek more future collaborations.
Asia Pacific, a prominent shipbuilding region, is moving closer towards the adoption of electric ships. For instance, in 2021, Japanese consortium e5 Lab Inc. developed the first electric propulsion tanker powered by a large capacity Li-ion battery which will sail as a bunker vessel in Tokyo Bay for shipping firm Asahi Tanker Co.
Similarly, China launched the world’s largest electric cruise ship that can accommodate up to 1300 passengers and sail a distance of 100 km on a single charge. Powered by a massive 7,500 kW-hour marine battery from battery manufacturer Contemporary Amperex Technology, the ship made its maiden voyage by cruising up and down the Yangtze River and will mainly be used for sightseeing trips.
Electric ships are expected to become mainstream over the coming years as countries and ship manufacturers strive to lower their carbon footprint and develop more zero-emission technologies. Advancements in battery technology will enable electric ship manufacturers to expand their product range and make them suitable for long-haul ocean routes. Furthermore, ambitious targets by government agencies like IMO will accelerate the electric ships market growth in the near future.