The Future Of Shipping – Wind Power
When the tanker Ever Given got stuck in the Suez Canal, the world’s attention focused on the risks and environmental costs of the shipping industry. The French company Neoline is poised to offer an innovative solution by moving freight by wind. It shows that smaller can indeed be better.
In March, 2021, the massive cargo ship Ever Given wedged itself sideways in the Suez Canal, holding up maritime traffic through the canal for six days. With a length of 1,300 feet, Ever Given is longer than the Empire State Building is tall, and its diagonal position kept any but the smallest ships from getting through the canal.
As the world watched dramatic efforts to free the ship, an immediate spike in oil prices and talk of a shortage of goods drew public attention to the fact that diesel-powered freighters such as Ever Given transport 90% of the world’s cargo and account for 80% of the world’s trade. This, in turn, revealed how heavily the global economy relies on gas-fueled, carbon-emitting ships. Most freighters use ultra-polluting, sludgy “bunker fuel,” making the shipping industry responsible for 3% of the world’s total global emissions. And that figure is set to explode to 17% by 2050, according to the European Parliament.
For companies such as the Michelin Group and Renault, which have set lofty environmental goals, the emissions produced to move their freight presents a problem.
Making the Old New Again
Enter Neoline, a French start-up with an ambitious solution. Led by a small group of experienced captains of “ro-ro” (roll-on, roll-off) ships, the company is taking a new approach to shipping by bringing in the old. It has designed a sailing cargo ship powered almost entirely by wind. Using the inexhaustible power of marine wind in its 14,000 square feet of sail, the “Neoliner” has the potential to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions on ocean crossings by 90%.
With a launch date of 2023 for the transatlantic operation of its first Neoliner, followed in 2024 by a second ship, Neoline has already secured the business of multiple large companies. These include Michelin, which will ship tires between Halifax and France; Renault, which transports 60% of its engine parts by sea; and heavy-equipment maker Manitou, which will be using the Neoliner to ship its machines from France to the U.S.
When Smaller Is Better
Many economists would say the principle of economies of scale make smaller ships such as the 450-foot Neoliner less competitive and more environmentally toxic than 1300-foot cargo ships such as Ever Given. The team at Neoline plans to turn that convention on its head by making smaller better. The company’s CEO, Jean Zanuttini, says, “It’s easy to either be competitive or generate zero emissions. But it takes courage and conscientiousness to blend them together.” Neoline has taken that leap.
The first way Neoline will compete is by entering a niche market, carrying items that do not fit easily fit into containers, such as boats, vehicles, and windmills.
As well, its smaller ships, with their retractable rigging, can dock in harbors that large freighters cannot. The greater range of harbors available to the company means that its customers do not spend hefty fees moving goods to distant harbors. It also means that Neoline’s ships don’t need to queue behind big freighters—and, with their smaller capacity, they will spend less time in dock, loading and unloading, and more time moving freight. Less time in dock equals more time making money, along with a better ability to tell their customers when to expect their shipments.
It was the relative unreliability of sailing ships that led first oceangoing steamships and then oil-fueled tankers to supplant them to begin with. The group at Neoline has offset this by adding a diesel-electric backup engine and high-tech design elements to create a wind-powered vessel that is as reliable and as fast as a conventional bunker-oil–fueled freighter. More weather data and better data analysis allow Neoline to chart an optimal path in order to assure on-time delivery.
Lessons from Ever Given
Ever Given starkly revealed the downside of an industry that relies on massive ships to transport goods around the globe.
First, these gargantuan cargo ships are expensive to operate. The economies of scale only kick in if the ships are fully loaded—but their huge capacity, of up to 20,000 containers, means that they often are not full on either the haul or the back haul. When they do have their full load, they become heavy and hard to handle, as illustrated by the grounding of Ever Given.
Second, such large ships cannot dock just anywhere. Their very size means that only a few harbors are large and deep enough to accommodate them. And these harbors must offer significant rail and highway services to allow the movement of containers, which are often quite distant from most customers’ operations.
As well, it takes a long time to load and unload such huge vessels. What exactly constitutes “a long time”? According to the Wall Street Journal, when a giant ship stops at a major port, it takes 3,000 people working around the clock for three whole days to get it unloaded and loaded again. On top of putting the giant ships in dock for much longer than smaller ones such as the Neoliner, this makes them more prey to mishaps and miscalculations, which cause delays and irritate clients.
Finally, the weight of these ships generates an enormous amount of greenhouse-gas emissions, especially at high speeds. Moving at lower speeds saves fuel, but it also costs time. The shipping industry has been willing to use dirt-cheap dirty bunker fuel for the past decades, but new climate regulations such as Paris Accord targets are starting to close in. One research consortium says that zero-emission ships need to come into play by 2030, and that by 2050, the whole industry needs to be using these decarbonized vessels.
Moving the Shipping Industry Back to the Future
Neoline is ahead of the game and showing an inspiring vision of the future of freight transport. The technological revolution has opened the door for a return to sailing ships that should not be overlooked.
Ever Given’s grounding could turn out to be a blessing in disguise. By shining a spotlight on the size, risks, and environmental costs of marine-freight transportation, its plight may push the industry, as well as the public, to recognize the need for a carbon-free global trade.