Energy & environment

Sky’s The Limit

With IMO regulations looming large, there is a pressing need to source more environmentally friendly fuels. We talk to James Hunn, vice-president of corporate environmental compliance & maritime affairs at Carnival, about short-term solutions and future possibilities.

Bunker fuel is not known for its green credentials. Viscous, tarry and toxic, it is essentially a waste product – the sludge that remains in the refinery after the lighter oils have been extracted. When cooled, it is thick enough to walk upon. When burned, it emits a slew of contaminants which does not make for a reassuring read.

To begin with, there is carbon dioxide (CO2), which is spewed out in huge quantities – the shipping industry is believed to be responsible for around 4.5% of emissions worldwide. Next, there are nitrogen and sulphur oxides (NOx and SOx), which contribute towards the formation of acid rain. Finally, there is sooty particulate matter, which, burrowing deep into the lung membranes, has been estimated to cause as many as 60,000 deaths a year.

The environmental impact of bunker fuel is a hugely pressing challenge, both for cruise companies and for the shipping industry at large. We need only compare bunker fuel to the petroleum used in cars to get the full measure of the situation. While the sulphur content of automobile fuel in the EU is capped at 15 parts per million, the limit for ships is 3,000 times higher at 4.5%.

This figure has come under flak from the IMO (International Maritime Organisation), whose regulations in the area are in the process of being tightened up. “Four or five years ago,” says James Hunn, vice-president of corporate environmental compliance & maritime affairs at Carnival, “there was a huge surge in the number of new regulations in the pipeline, and they’re all now coming to fruition. The issue of air emissions is only just starting to boil.” By 2020, the global sulphur emissions cap will be reduced to 0.5%, and as early as 2015, it will be slashed to 0.1% within designated control zones.

Hunn, an  ex-Navy man who has worked at Carnival since 2002, is confident the corporation can meet these standards. While he concedes it will be tough, he points out “we’re working with IMO and are complying with their regulations – locally, regionally, and globally. There’s a variety of things that can be done to help meet the sulphur emission requirements as they develop over the years.”

The most obvious solution would simply be to use oils that are naturally low in sulphur. This would undoubtedly be of benefit – when a regulation came into force requiring ships to burn lower sulphur fuel within 200 nautical miles of Canada and theUS, The US Environmental Protection Agency estimated that the measure would save as many as 14,000 lives a year.

The downside here is that lower-sulphur fuels are far more costly. With bunker fuel around 60% cheaper than its cleaner equivalents, it has always been the most economically viable option. A drastic hike in prices would not be what the cruise industry needs to stay afloat.

Another point of contention is availability. “There are questions about whether this very low sulphur fuel will be available in the required quantities,” says Hunn. “With the cruise industry representing 2% of the overall maritime industry or less, we don’t have a particularly loud voice in encouraging the development of more low-sulphur fuels.”

The real advances look set to happen where the cruise sector pulls together with the other 98%. Luckily, there is a good deal of consensus across the board. “There’s probably closer cooperation on environmental matters than on any other major subject,” says Hunn. “If there’s something bad in the environmental business, whichever part, it reflects badly on all of us. The maritime industry is as one.”

This unanimity was underscored by last year’s inaugural GMEC conference (Global Maritime Environmental Congress), in which Hunn convened with other maritime representatives to deliberate how they could best ‘set the green course’. The purpose of this event was to lay out very broadly where the industry was at present, and where it should go in future, but subsequent GMECs will home in on a single area. The 2012 conference will look more closely into air emissions.

With low sulphur fuels a limited commodity, top of the agenda is sure to be fuel efficiency. Burning less oil is a win-win situation, aligning economic and ecological concerns in that it both decreases a company’s environmental footprint and saves them money. In practice, this might entail a range of measures, including travelling at slower speeds. An IPCC report from 2007 demonstrated that if, ships were to move 10% more slowly, it would equate to a 23% reduction in CO2 emissions.

Other fuel-saving tricks being flouted include cold ironing in port. This involves shutting down the ship’s engine when in harbour, and plugging in to a land-based power source.  “That can be a good idea,” says Hunn – “we do it at some places in the world now. But it depends on how the power that you’re using is being generated. If the onshore power puts more sulphur into the air than we would have done through our engines, then it isn’t the best solution. You have to look at those on a case by case basis.”

Ultimately such measures, in and of themselves, are unlikely to yield major results. Only a shakeup in the technology looks apt to reduce emissions very radically. “The problem,” says Hunn, “is the state of this technology isn’t where we would like it to be. And in that respect I’m talking about scrubbers.”

Scrubbers are air pollution control devices, used to extract sulphur from bunker oils. With around half a dozen currently at sea, Carnival had the world’s first. They are a particularly resourceful solution, ensuring that the fuel is utilised and avoiding wastage. “If we can continue to be able to use the heavy fuel oil,” says Hunn, “and treat it to remove the sulphur from the stat gas, then that’s certainly advantageous to us because of cost factors. It’s advantageous to the oil companies as well because if there’s no market for that heavy fuel oil then not only do you lose the ability to sell it, now you have to somehow dispose of it.”

The present uses of scrubbers, unfortunately, are limited by their unwieldiness. While factories onshore have been using such technology for years, the scrubbers can often be as large as the factories themselves. On a cruise ship, in which space is of the essence, you simply don’t have the flexibility of carrying one – Hunn compares it to lugging around ‘half a city block’.

Size is the principal obstacle when it comes to many such innovations. Solar power is a good example (“you can’t have enough solar panels to produce enough power to power a ship,” says Hunn, “because there just isn’t physically room”). More important still is fuel cell technology, which Hunn suggests may one day represent the biggest breakthrough in this area. “Right now,” he says, “you can build stacks of fuel cells which take fuel and convert it chemically, without burning it, and reduce the air emissions. The problem is they don’t produce enough power per square foot of fuel cell, so they’re very large in footprint.”

While fuel cells have no market penetration at present, Hunn suggests that their inefficiency shouldn’t be a problem moving forward. The recognised trajectory seems to be that, as a technology is developed, it shrinks from being large and cumbersome to small and super-efficient. “Electronics is a great example,” he points out. “Computers were room-sized a couple of decades ago, and now they’re thimble-sized. As we continue to downsize our fuel cells and scrubbers I’m confident the same thing will happen.”

Here, of course, we are talking some way in the future – the likelihood is that new developments in fuel cell technology will come about some 30-50 years from now. With the average cruise ship boasting a 30-40 year lifespan, this equates to a whole new generation of ships.

For now, the focus will remain on fixing the margins. Companies such as Carnival are concentrating their efforts on getting more efficient here, producing better engines there; reducing NOx by 40% and SOx by 30%; saving money and ensuring the IMO regulations are met. Hunn is clear that the best thing for Carnival will be to take a multi-pronged approach: “As any company would do, we’re going to take the most efficient of those methodologies. I think our optimal solution will be a combination of them.”

A full answer to the problem cannot come about overnight. “Most people who have concern over the environment,” says Hunn “are thinking about a completely emission-free ship. I think that’s another generation away.”

This article appears in the September 2011 edition of World Cruise Industry Review

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