Hydrogen On The High Seas: The Great Hope For Net-Zero Emissions


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ByKavinda Ratnapala

Note to the reader*

This article is a supplementary essay which is to be read in tandem with a previous article on alternative green marine fuels and is written as a part of a wider collection of articles on sustainable shipping.

When exploring alternative fuels in the aforementioned article, the conscious choice taken to not mention hydrogen as an alternative propulsion technology stemmed from two reasons. First, the breadth and scale of hydrogen as a legitimate alternative energy source has been widely discussed. But its application in the commercial shipping industry has not been explored to the same extent. Second, unlike the alternative fuels explored in the preceding article. Hydrogen’s practical use has thus far been championed by startups and not by the leading shipping magnates of the day. It is to understand these developments, hydrogen’s use in commercial shipping merits a dedicated discussion.

First, we explore why interest in hydrogen has persisted while alternatives are currently available. Next, the state of hydrogen’s adoption and use case on the seas will be explored carrying the discussion to its logical conclusion by exploring the likely endpoint of hydrogen’s use within the wider push for net-zero in the shipping industry.

Why Hydrogen as a Marine Fuel?

Perhaps the main reason that hydrogen has persisted as a marine propulsion technology, is due to the fact that the only waste generated from hydrogen propulsion – used as either a fuel cell or combustion technology – is water. With no proven negative environmental externalities. This is the reason for green-ammonia an emission-free fuel, though currently being researched and invested in, has on the whole not been adopted by any of the major ocean liners as it is a highly toxic and corrosive substance. With shipping lines facing substantial enforcement by Interpol with regards to their poor waste management record, a fuel with only water generated as an externality is the gold standard that many environmentally inclined parties have been holding out for.  

While hydrogen’s feasibility has been established as an alternative to fossil fuels with small-scale ships currently in service. Its commercial application has been a long time coming. When looking at the world’s premier shipping lines while there have been some limited signalling and select commitments. Yet, there is little to suggest a surge in hydrogen adoption or its serious consideration by the merchant fleet is imminent. COSCO Shipping which operates China’s largest shipping fleet has not mentioned the adoption of any alternative fuels let alone hydrogen. Hapag-Lloyd Shipping which is Germany’s largest shipper has only taken a very limited approach to using a cooking oil-based biofuel, which is intended to be used as a mixed fuel with traditional fossil fuels. Here too there is no mention of hydrogen as being a tentative “alternative propulsion technology” as termed by Hapag-Lloyd. This trend holds with other shipping liners as well including Evergreen and Yang Ming based in Taiwan and the Hong Kong headquartered Orient Overseas Container Line.

This lack of interest while counter-parts in the aviation industry and land transport industry who have been investing heavily in hydrogen-based solutions is due to, as always, a combination of cost and wider piecemeal net-zero commitments. As detailed here, significant blame can be placed at the feet of the International Maritime Organization’s (IMO) greenhouse gas strategy which does not even aspired for an emission-free shipping industry by 2050. The strategy does not even require shippers to purchase carbon credits to offset their net emissions to boot.

The State of Adoption

For the longest time legacy carmakers meandered – when compared to startups like Tesla who were betting the house on electric vehicles (EVs)- due to the catch-22 which took the following form: There was no justification for investing in charging infrastructure and battery technology as there was no demand from customers, who in turn would not demand such vehicles without the accompanying services.

Shipping lines have been unwilling to adopt hydrogen-based propulsion due to similar reasons. As of today, there are only a few -incomparable- proofs of concepts; The first being a 16-seater passenger ferry based out of Belgium and the more ambitious Energy Observer vessel currently on an odyssey around the world. However, comparable vessels which will be needed to challenge the status quo are still in their design phase and years from calling port. Some of the best-funded and consequential projects under-development are: the 240 twenty-foot equivalent unit capacity mixed-energy vessel, Energy Observer 2 and the customer cargo and containerized liquid hydrogen carrying Topeka twin vessel. The former has been designed to run on a combination of solar, wind and hydrogen fuel cell electric and is projected to launch in 2025; while the latter is a part-Norwegian government-funded vessel set to enter commercial service as a short-sea ship in 2024.

Another possible use case for hydrogen has been via retrofitting of diesel engines to run on hydrogen. However, none of the three dominant shipping alliances namely: Ocean Alliance, THE Alliance and 2M Alliance have any disclosed plans towards this end.

Hydrogens Actual Use Case as A Viable Alternative.

Four years have passed since the adoption of the IMO’s greenhouse gas strategy; which has been the benchmark to which all the major shippers have aligned their emissions reduction activities. Short of a Tesla-like company rising to challenge the dominance of the aforementioned major shipping alliances by offering a hydrogen-based value proposition. It is unlikely, given the scale of the changes required and the time crunch leading up to 2050, that hydrogen will rise as a serious alternative propulsion technology on the oceans. This fact is only compounded by the most proactive emissions minded shipping liners choosing to overwhelmingly invest in the combined use of green methanol, green ammonia and biofuels.  

While prospects such as the Energy Observer 2 and Topeka may establish the viability of hydrogen as a genuine alternative to fossil fuels. Given the lack of regulatory pressures and indications made by the major shipping lines, hydrogen may very well be limited to recreational, cruise and other vessels that operate short-sea routes with little evidence to suggest that they will be used for circumnavigation.

Grounding Hydrogen and Our Expectations.

As alluded to thus far, hydrogen will play a consequential role in the decarbonisation of transport.  However, hydrogen is clearly not germane to the vested interests in the global shipping industry as such the magnitude of its impact will not be felt in ocean transportation and then too not as a direct replacement for marine fossil fuels. While hydrogen was always intended to be a part of a suite of technologies to replace fossil fuels at the macro-industrial level. What was not expected, as exposed through the developments currently underway, was for it to be a part of a suite of alternative fuels at the micro-level, at the level of the individual vessel. Counter-intuitive as it may be, this is actually a cause for hope. The environmental malady of our time is our collective dependency on fossil fuels and failure to meaningfully divest and diversify. Therefore, the most important lesson from the failings of the past 100 years of depending on a single source for transport friendly energy is that: there should never again be only one and it is for the better that it not be hydrogen as well.

Related to this article:

For an account of the impacts of alternative greener fuels used by the global shipping industry see here

For an account of how electrification is being redefined and actioned via interchangeable battery technology for marine propulsion see here

Kavinda Ratnapala, has worked in a range of Corporate and Not for Profit roles from which he ideates and writes in the Sustainability and Governance space whilst occasionally dabbling in geopolitics of interest. He holds a Masters in Environment and Sustainability with a Bachelors in International Relations.

You can email the author at kavindareads@gmail.com or find him on Twitter under the handle @kavinda937


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