All about technology and forces shaping the energy transition in shipping

Decarbonising shipping: From theory to technology deployment

April 25, 2021

I regularly run into innovators and inventors who are interested in deploying their zero-carbon or energy optimisation/saving technologies in the shipping industry. These conversations usually end up being pitches for the alternative fuel in question, or the ‘macro’ merits of shipping’s decarbonisation. But what I, or any potential user of the technology (who ultimately needs to foot the bill), really want to understand are the technology’s capabilities, the inherent risks and challenges to implementation, and barriers (or not) to scale.

Over the last few years, I’ve analysed several technologies for their potential to decarbonise the shipping industry and made decisions on whether or not they are worth investing — money and effort — into. This blog is a summary of insights gained over that time, which I hope will help teams working on new technologies understand some of the nuances of building for this all-pervasive but under-the-radar industry.

  • Systematically de-risk implementation
    The key to ensuring uptake of your technology and/or accelerating its progress, is to de-risk implementation and make it easy for a vessel owner or port to start using the technology. This could be done by preparing the groundwork in advance and where possible, securing permits and regulatory approvals which can take up a significant amount of time. Leverage the certification process to identify technical loopholes and operational and safety risks and mitigate them. Having individual technologies certified can make integrating them on board a vessel, and bringing them into commercial operations much easier and faster.
  • Deploy the lowest possible configuration of your technology into real operations (‘sea-test’ it) at the earliest possible
    The ‘lean’ approach works in shipping too, and no amount of lab testing is a substitute for actually putting your technology to work in the industry. Something that works perfectly on land still needs to be adapted to function seamlessly on a ship. The technology will have to perform through different conditions of temperature, humidity, withstand greater vibrations, etc. The sooner you implement, the faster you’ll learn about all these aspects and can factor them into your technology development process.
  • Your technology needs to come up trumps in a simple, full-picture, cost benefit analysis What are the increased costs of using your technology on multiple levels — CAPEX, OPEX, maintenance, extra time for performing some necessary tasks, different operational needs, infrastructure, upskilling/training crew and staff?
    What advantages does your technology offer in addition to reducing emissions? And would those advantages compel someone to pay more or expend additional effort?
  • Set yourself up for scale
    A single ship can have installed power requirements and energy needs that are significantly larger than smaller vehicles like cars, buses and trucks. ‘Scale’ in the multi-MW level can come from just one ship. Start building your product and sourcing your materials — from core components to peripheral equipment — for scale, right from the beginning.
  • Deliver long-term solutions
    Sea-going vessels stay in service for 20–25 years and inland vessels for over 40 years. Think about how your technology can cater to this asset longevity. What is maintenance or refurbishment going to look like? Can you embed your technology in a powerful business model that can convince a vessel owner to make an investment decision in your favour in the face of regulatory and fuel-type uncertainty? Think leasing, pay-per-use and buy back options. Also provide end-of-life recycling/refurbishment options; customers interested in sustainable solutions are also conscious of the entire lifecycle of the technology.
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