Norsepower: Why European Ships Are Switching Back To Sails
There’s something strange happening in Europe’s €145bn shipping industry.
A technology from the 1920s is making a turbulent comeback, as tanker ships from global shipping giants like Maersk are once again embracing huge sails and wind power.
But not like you’ve ever seen before.
From horsepower to Norsepower
By the end of 2018, three huge ships floating around the continent will be part-powered by vast metal cylinders strapped on their backs, each ship saving some $200,000 per year in fuel costs, all thanks to entrepreneur Tuomas Riski.
Riski isn’t what you’d imagine from a shipping magnate, the 38-year-old spent over a decade in sales at one of Finland’s largest IT service businesses. However, as a physics graduate Riski was always fascinated by clean technology and engineering, and in 2012 came up with a business idea to combine the two.
“What Norsepower was able to do is apply a new understanding to an existing technology,” Riski tells Forbes.
That technology was the rotor sail.
The rotor sail was invented by German engineer Anton Flettner in 1926, and helped sail two ships across the Atlantic in its first year.
Its design is a tall perfectly smooth metal cylinder which spins when the wind passes across it and, through a quirk of physics, provides forward thrust.
In the 1900s rotor sails never caught on, the expensive sails boasted marginal 6% fuel savings at a time when oil was so cheap that the shipping giants simply didn’t care.
Today, however, the shipping landscape has been transformed by high fuel costs (oil costs double what it did in the 1960s) and environmental concerns, while improvements in manufacturing have made the construction of rotor sails cheaper than ever. So it’s no surprise Flettner’s idea is back in vogue.
Supported by funding from the European Union and the Finnish Government along with a small €3m equity funding round in 2016, Riski took Flettner’s concept and, with the help of one of Finland’s leading naval architects Kai Levander, built Norsepower into a world-leader in rotor sails.
“The ability to harness the wind as an additional power source to enable a reduction in fuel consumption is a natural next step for the maritime transport industry,” he says.
The first Norsepowered ship, a cargo ship called the M/S Estraden, set sail from Finland in 2015.
Since then, thanks to Norsepower’s 18m high sail, its annual fuel costs have been cut by $224,600 per year, a 6.1% reduction or the equivalent of 400 metric tonnes of fuel.
Considering Norsepower’s rotor sails cost between €1m and €2m to install, the project is expected to pay for itself in just a few years.
“And all the wind captured provides a propulsion assist that is clean, abundant, and 100% carbon neutral,” says Riski.
But the Estraden was just the start.
Last year Norsepower signed a deal for a pilot with Maersk, the $200bn Danish shipping conglomerate.
The pilot will see Norsepower’s largest sail yet, at 30m high, installed on one of Maersk’s vast tankers in early 2018, which could reduce its fuel consumption by up to 10%.
Maersk’s chief technical officer, Tommy Thomassen, recently said that if the pilot proved successful the rotors could be rolled out across all of its long and medium-range tankers.
A second deal has been announced with Viking Line, to install Norsepower on one of its existing cruise ships in 2018 and to include Norsepower in one of its newbuild cruise ferries.
Riski is also working with naval architects to have Norsepower included in their ship designs, and Dutch shipping company Switijnk Shipping has already placed an order for an 8,000-tonne cargo ship with Norsepower.
By the end of 2019 five ships will be sailing part-powered by Norsepower, but for Riski this is clearly only the start.
“There are currently 20,000 ships in the world which could be fitted with rotor sails,” he says.
That’s around a third of all the ships on the planet.
If Riski achieves his admittedly ambitious goal, along with improving Norsepower’s fuel savings to between 10-15% per ship over the coming years: “it would equate to a 5% reduction in carbon emissions for the global maritime fleet.”
Not bad for a former IT salesperson.