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Autonomous electric ships reporting for duty this year

A new day is dawning for maritime commercial freight. (Photo/Shutterstock)

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People get all hot-and-bothered about cars and light trucks. The personal vehicle, whether it’s electric or autonomous or both, is sexy. But as FreightWaves reported just last week, when it comes to the first wave of real change, it’s all about commercial freight. And Europe is on the infrastructural bleeding edge of making the changes at a pace far exceeding the rest of the world. When other countries begin to recognize the two-fold approach of creating tax-incentives to spur the organic, free-market growth, widespread international adoption would soon follow.

That is why it’s really not so ironic that the transportation sector — most responsible for emitting carbon and nitrogen — is leading the changes. Add in the fact that this sector stands to have the largest immediate ROI, and it all starts to come together. It makes perfect sense.

Tractor trailers, urban delivery vans, and ships have long been reliant on diesel. While efficient and reliable, these engines also spew millions of tons of unwanted particles into the atmosphere annually. Electric barges are another key development in the ongoing drive to create a greener shipping industry, with electric trucks and port machinery already in action.

Dutch company, Port Liner, has an innovative maritime solution, introducing an autonomous electric barge for the European market beginning in Q3 of 2018. The project projects to cost around 100 million euros. CEO of Port-Liner, Ton van Meegen says, “There are some 7,300 inland vessels across Europe and more than 5,000 of those are owned by entrepreneurs in Belgium and the Netherlands. We can build upwards of 500 a year, but at that rate it would take some 50 years to get the industry operating on green energy."

Fortunately, the process to all-electric and autonomous is as much an adaptation as it is an innovation. The company intends also to retrofit existing barges, so the change to the industry will be expedited exponentially. 

The first vessels are expected to have a significant impact on local transport between the ports of Amsterdam, Antwerp, and Rotterdam. It has been reported that the logistics company GVT Group will use the so-called ‘Tesla ships’ on the route between its terminal at business park Vossenberg-West and the port of Rotterdam.

The battery-powered barges are able to carry 280 containers. Specifically, the first 6 barges are said to remove 23,000 trucks from the roads annually in the Netherlands and replace them with zero-emission transport. Their batteries are housed in containers for easy replacement and recharging ashore.

According to Meegen, there will be four ‘packed’ batteries in containers, with a duration of 34 hours. The batteries can be recharged on shore in four hours, without excluding the possibility to exchange the containers as a whole. The containers are to be charged onshore by carbon-free energy provider Eneco, which sources solar power, windmills and renewables.

Maritime transport has benefited a lot from renewable energy of late. Port-Liner isn't the only company getting in on the act. The all-electric, autonomous Yara Birkeland, capable of generating its own propulsion power, announced its "proof of concept" in July of last year.

Behind the project are two private Norwegian companies, chemical company Yara –- specializing in fertilizer production -- and the technological company Kongsberg, that develops sea technology solutions.

The Yara Birkeland –- which takes its name from the founder of Norwegian chemistry, the physicist and inventor Kristian Birkeland -- will be built in Norway, also aiming to be ready in Q3 of 2018. The ship aims to replace more than one hundred diesel trucks that transport the products from the Norwegian chemical company by roadway from its plant in Porsgrunn to the ports of Brevik and Larvik, 15 and 35 kilometers away, respectively.

As a result, it is calculated that 40,000 heavy vehicle roadway trips per year will no longer be made, which will lead to a reduction in carbon and nitrogen emissions, a reduction in noise pollution, and increased safety on the roadways where the transport trucks drive. Geir Håøy, president and CEO of Kongberg, says, “By moving container transport from land to sea, Yara Birkeland marks the beginning of a huge contribution toward meeting national and international environmental impact objectives. This new concept is also taking a huge step to increase sea transport in general.”

Norway, which has an extensive network of cargo ships and passenger ferries, is also pushing ahead with plans for autonomous electric vessels. China recently launched an electric cargo ship. Ironically enough, it will haul coal, but at least without adding emissions from a diesel engine. Two of Sweden's massive ferry companies announced plans last year to shift from diesel to electric, which will make them the largest all-electric ships in the world.

Electric ships may not be able to span the globe and cross oceans just yet, but it’s a process. Converting coastal and inland ships to electric power is a harbinger of good things to come, and demonstrates Europe's commitment to sustainable energy, the U.S.'s retraction from the Paris Climate Accord notwithstanding.

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