A number of existing strategies can help ocean carriers shrink their carbon footprint — whether by reducing idling, optimizing routes or leveraging carbon offsets. But the industry is still working to solve the larger challenge of finding and making available an alternative, sustainable energy source for widespread use.
“We are in our infancy now, from a maritime perspective, in terms of using these alternative fuels to propel vessels,” said Alex Strogen, chief commercial officer of the Port of Vancouver USA.
“Is it going to be methanol? Is it going to be LNG [liquefied natural gas]? Is it going to be renewable diesel? All of these types of fuels are on the table and being considered.”
Of all these, it seems no particular option has yet shown itself as the front-runner for the most viable widespread adoption by ocean carriers. Whatever the fuel of the future is, Strogen believes there needs to be more regulation before everybody can get on board.
“Unless you have a regulatory framework that’s going to put everybody on the same level playing field, it’s not going to work,” Strogen said. “Maybe those ocean carriers who are using more traditional fossil fuels are going to have a more competitive price point and win more business than those that are taking the initiative to use the more sustainable fuels. If everybody’s required to lower their CO2 emissions, I think that’s what it’s going to take.”
Strogen also believes greater technology breakthroughs need to happen before alternative energy will become more widely available.
In the meantime, without a clear idea of what those will be, ocean carriers are left searching for a path forward as they look to build vessels. It takes about three years to plan and build a ship, and its lifetime is no short-term commitment.
“How are you going to live with that ship for the next 15 to 20-plus years? Getting this right in terms of what type of propulsion you’re going to be using in that vessel, the fuels you’ll be using in that vessel is super important,” Strogen said.
While the industry figures out what fuels to invest in, there is financial momentum from government funding to curb emissions and set the stage for greener infrastructure at ports.
The Inflation Reduction Act, signed into law by President Joe Biden in August, will bring $3 billion in grants and rebates to ports to install zero-emissions cargo-handling equipment. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, signed into law last November, will invest $17 billion in port infrastructure and waterways, with part of the money going toward cutting emissions near ports and boosting electrification and other low-carbon technologies.
“Ports are going to be the beneficiary of a lot of federal dollars to help upgrade our facilities … to help them be ready to be able to service these vessels when they come in and are seeking some of these new power sources,” Strogen said.
The Port of Vancouver USA, on the Columbia River in Washington, has already committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and protecting the environment through its Climate Action Plan. The plan outlines actions it can take to reduce port-controlled emissions by 45% to 50% from a 2005 baseline and become carbon neutral by 2050.
“We’re planning infrastructure from an electrical conduit perspective that will put us ready to install shoreside connections when those are required. We’re making these investments knowing from our perspective that we’ve got to do our part,” he said.
Since 2009, the port’s We Can! Sustainability Task Force has been publishing yearly reports to highlight its sustainability accomplishments.
Important to the port’s efforts is protecting the air, water and land of nearby ecosystems of the Columbia River and wetland habitats.
So far, some major projects include treating stormwater runoff through its Floating Treatment Wetlands, fleet modernization to upgrade vehicles and equipment to energy-efficient models, an anti-idling initiative, and installation of electric vehicle charging stations.
Although more work and decisions lie ahead, Strogen is confident that the industry is headed in the right direction.
“I feel more bullish on what’s to come than I think I ever have,” Strogen said. “It’s again because of this legislation that’s out there, the enormous amount of federal funds flowing, I think that we will see here over the next few years probably more progress and then implementation of sustainable energy than, certainly, I think we ever have before in the country.”