• 2020 September 2

    Electric propulsion: future of the shipping industry or a specific niche?

    EcoVolt catamaran in Saint-Petersburg

    Electric propulsion lets both cars and ships meet the toughest environmental standards. Ferries running on electricity have long been in active use in Scandinavia while Russia has built its first battery-powered leisure boat. United Shipbuilding Corporation believes that electric propulsion is the future of shipbuilding. Yet, there are some issues to address.

    With electric propulsion, ships comply with the toughest environmental requirements on hazardous emissions, both the current and the expected ones. Besides, battery-powered ships do not generate noise.

    “Electric propulsion is actually the future of the global shipbuilding, - Aleksey Rakhmanov, General Director of United Shipbuilding Corporation (USC), shares his opinion in his interview with IAA PortNews. – It lets considerably simplify the ship design and offers many other advantages”.

    According to the head of USC, the problem is in the cost of batteries which is still high while their power is too low for a mass use by civil fleet.

    In view of this aspect, it is reasonable to apply electric propulsion for small recreational crafts which do not require high capacity or endurance while giving priority to absence of engine noise and emission smell.

    Russia’s first electrically powered catamaran, EcoVolt, was officially launched in Saint-Petersburg in August 2020. The ship is actually not big with its capacity of up to 86 passengers and crew of 2 members. The ship’s endurance is up to 10 hours (up to 140 kilometers), speed – up to 7.5 knots (14.5 km/h). Those characteristics are sufficient for voyages along the city rivers and canals.

    Besides, Vodohod signed a contract to get five high-speed Ecocruiser catamarans with a capacity of up to 120 passengers. They are supposed to replace the traditional Meteors on the route between the Palace embankment in Saint-Petersburg and Petergof.

    When speaking about advantages and disadvantages of such ships compared with conventional high-speed hydrofoils, Victor Olersky, Chairman of Vodohod BoD, emphasized that construction of new ships is economically viable although they cannot be as fast as ships of Meteor design.

    “We move in this direction when it comes to electric propulsion. We begin with the fleet for sightseeing, with the replacement of Meteors. Of course, the speed will not be 30 knots, just 20 knots, but it is still a step forward. Obviously, Meteros (just like Kometas) can be repeated technically, but not economically. There are no other solutions except for electric propulsion”, said the head of the shipping company during PortNews’ webinar “From Volga to Yenisey: will river cruise shipping survive?”

    As for the cargo fleet, the situation is more challenging. Large cargo carriers need more powerful engines and higher endurance which is virtually not possible today for ships with electric propulsion, neither technically, nor economically.

     

    Nevertheless, this work is underway in foreign countries and in Russia. In August 2020, Japanese company e5 Lab said it had begun development of a standard model electrically powered vessel called the ROBOSHIP.

     

    The company is currently developing two types of electric vessels for ROBOSHIP Ver. 1.0, with standard gross tonnage specifications — 499 tons and 749 tons. e5 Lab says that these craft will be able to achieve the same speed and sailing range as vessels currently in service, while achieving zero-emission operations in port by using large-capacity storage batteries in combination with a diesel-powered generator.

    Such ships are expected to reduce workload on the crew, the risk of mechanical failures and the cost of maintenance. Construction costs are expected to decrease by 5% as compared with traditional vessels of similar tonnage.

    Aleksey Rakhmanov said in his turn that Russia is working towards increasing the capacity of batteries as well as decreasing their cost. “We hope that the key manufacturers and personalities in this sector will show us such a solution soon”, said the head of USC.

    However, even in case of successful implementation of such projects, both technically and economically, the ships’ expected tonnage will be too low for mass application in the cargo segment.

    Therefore, we believe that electric propulsion will develop in specific niches of shipping and shipbuilding, yet on a limited scale.

    Most probably, those will be small tourist and pleasure boats, ferries and port fleet vessels and, perhaps, river-going and sea/river going cargo ships. All of them should have an access to charging points. Besides, their operators will face a challenge of waste batteries disposal. The need to create a required infrastructure is an additional obstacle on the way towards the shipping industry ‘electrification’.

    Read more about electrically-powered ships operated worldwide and other developments in the segment in our earlier article >>>>

    Vitaly Chernov