Decarbonising shipping, and the Ship of the Future

The unseen sector that fuels our daily lives...
30 January 2024
Presented by Will Tingle
Production by Will Tingle.


P&O Pioneer


We are at the beginning of an infrastructure shift on par with the industrial revolution. As the effects of climate change become ever more real and the time frames become ever shorter, we must ask ourselves, are we capable of changing how we live and leave a mark on this planet in a way that is actually meaningful. This week, we are in Dover, in the south-east of England, to meet the people and organisations trying to bring sustainable solutions to one of the world’s most important sectors: shipping. 33% of the UK’s trade with the EU comes through this one port. Last year, over 6.5 million passengers travelled on this route, with 144 billion pounds worth of commerce alongside them. So if you want to decarbonise the shipping industry, here is a great place to start. In this episode, we look at the shipping industry as a case study to see just how much has to be taken into consideration on so many levels, in order to work towards a carbon neutral future. What are the enormous challenges currently being faced, and what goes into building the ship of the future?

In this episode

A cruise Ship

The scale of shipping's CO2 emissions
Peter Selway, Powercon & Lisa Lewis

If you’re a human being on planet Earth, the chances are you rely on shipping to uphold your day to day life. Some estimates put the amount of commerce transported worldwide by ships as high as 90%, that’s food, medicine, cars, pretty much anything you can think of. But all of that comes at a carbon cost. To find out more, here are a couple of people who can outline the scale of shipping’s carbon footprint...

Peter - So the shipping industry globally produces about 3% of greenhouse gases, but it's responsible for transporting 90% of the world's commerce. So it's extraordinarily critical to the world's economy.

Lisa - If shipping were a country, it would be the sixth largest emitter in the world.

Will - To jump on that point and to make sure that we're all on the same boat, as it were, it would be so much higher if we weren't using boats to transport stuff around.

Peter - Yes. So shipping is an extraordinarily efficient way of transporting, moving goods and people. On a short sea route, from Dover to Calais, a ship like this would emit about 16 grams of CO2 per tonne-kilometre, whereas road transport would use about 62 grams of CO2 per tonne-kilometre. So it's much more efficient and along the routes it becomes even more efficient still.

Lisa - If we remember that shipping is 3% of global emissions, road equates to approximately 15%, aviation is only 2.5% of global emissions, but the efficiency of using jet fuel is far less efficient than a ship engine.

Will - Given that this is still the best way of transporting all the world's goods, it is still the plan to reduce the amount of CO2 being produced. Is there a set amount for a set date?

Peter - The UK government has committed to decarbonising shipping by 2050. To be on track to hit that target, we need to reduce emissions by 15% between 2022 and 2030. And at the moment, unfortunately, we're not on track to do that.

Will - This is all talking about carbon dioxide. Is that the only greenhouse gas or harmful substance that is in play when we're talking about trying to reduce the footprint of shipping?

Lisa - No, absolutely not. Combustion isn't a hundred percent efficient. At its peak it's approximately 65% efficient for the main engines. Compare that to a petrol car which is 35% efficient. And when it's not a hundred percent efficient, you get waste products coming off. But if you're burning fossil fuels, you're going to get nitrous oxide, sulphur oxides, black carbon particulates, fugitive emissions, unburnt fuel gets leaked... there are lots of things that can damage the climate and human health.

Peter - Most ports are in town and city centres. Often when you see pictures of a ship, you might see some black carbon coming out of the chimney stack. What you can't see is the nitrous dioxide and the sulphur dioxides. The problem is, even with the low sulphur fuel that's being used at the moment, it has still got a hundred times the sulphur content of road diesel, and that pollution has generally been blown straight over these towns and city centres.

Will - This is almost a direct public health concern as well as a general climatic concern as well?

Peter - Absolutely. Shipping, by its nature, is out in the ocean and I think it gets forgotten about. Although it's a really efficient way of transporting goods and people, there are still big problems and there are big polluters. Particularly when that pollution is close to humans, the impact on human health is considerable.

Lisa - The modern experience of using a ferry or a cruise ship is very much more like a bubble than actual exposure and experiencing the maritime world. People drive on in a car, they go to very comfortable lounges, they use the restaurant, they might wander out for a quick walk on the deck on the prom, but often not at all on a short crossing between Dover and Calais. Therefore people are in some way disconnected and it's more of a sanitised journey.

Will - All of what you're saying to me right now makes this sound like a really multi-level, multifaceted problem to solve.

Lisa - So decarbonisation as an aspiration has got so many problems that will potentially create friction on the journey towards that target state. We've got disconnection in public policy, drivers towards human health and drivers towards decarbonisation are not necessarily always aligned. The technology, some of it's in proof of concept stage, there are multiple options on the table. For a ship designer, ship owner, ship operator, which way are you going to go? Depending on your investment, you could have a long time to get that payback in terms of performance change and you could be many years down the road in your design or construction when the public policy changes and then what will you do? In terms of all the potential solutions around the alternative fuels, there are many complexities and constraints around that, which Peter can go into more detail with.

Peter - These ships are some of the biggest machines humans have ever created, so the amount of energy they use is also absolutely huge. There's lots of alternative fuels I've been looking at. If you want to hit these 2050 decarbonization targets, there's lots of fuels like hydrogen, methanol, ammonia, they've all got lots of disadvantages. There's none of them that's an obvious alternative, and none that produce anything like the quantities we are going to need to fuel vessels of this sort of scale. One of the most obvious alternative fuels is electricity, and there's two elements of electrification of vessels. When a ship comes into a port, instead of running its diesel engines, it plugs into the electrical supply from the grid from the country, and uses that supply of electricity whilst at berth. That's called shore power. The other solution is, in addition to shore power, if we can provide enough electricity where batteries onboard the ships, like the ship we're on at the moment, can store that energy and use that energy for propulsion. Fundamentally, what we're trying to do here is decarbonise shipping by 2050 at the absolute latest. Yes, there are lots of alternative fuels. Yes, there are lots of issues with those, but we can't let that prevent us making the right measures now to try and decarbonise. One of the big challenges we have with the shipping industry is that a ship will last typically 30 years, whereas a car might last 10 years. Ships will still be in use in 2050, so we've got to decarbonise now and the only consensus fuel is electricity because all these ships are using electricity at the moment.

P&O Pioneer

07:38 - P&O Pioneer: the ship of the future

What goes into making the world's largest hybrid ship?

P&O Pioneer: the ship of the future
Ross Barrett, Ship of the Future

So electricity, for the moment, seems to be the frontrunner in decarbonising the shipping industry. And one of the solutions is real and here. In fact, I’m standing on it right now. The P&O Pioneer is the biggest hybrid ferry in the world, taking people, vehicles, and freight between Dover and Calais.

Ross - I'm Ross Barrett. I'm the Ship of the Future director for P&O Ferries, responsible for the build of the two new fusion class ships that we have currently sailing between Dover and Calais.

Will - First thing, and it was the thing that was sold to me by everyone who encouraged me to come on the ship, we have a glass of water in front of us and we're doing what I like to call the reverse Jurassic Park test. There is no movement on this cup of water and that's amazing. How is this possible?

Ross - Well, we're actually using Azipod technology on this ship, coupled with hybrid batteries and a much more efficient hull line which actually streamlines the vessel itself. So what we actually see is no vibration from this vessel at all. So, in your reverse Jurassic Park moment, that's the reason why the ship is so smooth and attuned, a little bit like wearing noise cancelling headphones.

Will - Now I've always known ships to have a front end and a back end and them to look different. We're on a weird looking ship and it's making me feel nervous. Why is this such a strange shape?

Ross - So this is actually a double-ended ferry. It's actually the world's largest hybrid double-ended ferry. That actually negates us having to turn in port because we don't have a forward and a backend. It means we are a drive on, drive off service, and that then gives us a saving that means we can leave slightly earlier, not turn, and then deliver our customers by sailing slightly slower.

Will - But it's not just about the hybrid engine. There's all kinds of stuff going on on the ship to help reduce its carbon footprint and impact.

Ross - That's right. We've got a huge amount of technology actually fitted to this vessel. We've got heat recovery systems, we've got power management systems that help us balance the loads. We've got a very intelligent lighting system that allows lights to be able to dim, we are be able to control all of the zones on the ship so we can shut down areas and heat certain other areas, we can take heat through our recovery systems that actually regenerates back without having to use boilers and and provide that heat back into customer spaces as well. But we've also got very clever glass on this ship as well, we call it the smart glass, and what you can actually do is dim and lighten the glass depending on how much light we want actually into the vessel, how much heat we want to actually reflect back out as well.

Will - This combined with the fact that, if I shut my eyes, I wouldn't believe I was on a boat right now. I'm fully intrigued and I would love to go and have a look at the inner workings of this boat.

We've come down the decks to the engine level, starting off the tour in the diesel generator room. There's not much to say, which is probably a good thing given the noise, but this is the past. Let's go see the future.

Dmitri - My name is Dmitri. I am chief engineer on the P&O Pioneer. We are in a battery room now that's one of 4 battery rooms. That's about four megawatt hours and normally we're using them in hybrid mode. That means we depart from port on only one generator and the rest of the power is supplied by the batteries. Approximately, within 30-40 minutes, depends on the power demand, the battery is depleted and then we need to charge them. The second generator kicks in and charges the batteries at the same time. We arrive at port, we recharge the batteries so they're at 80%. That's a healthy state of charge and we are ready for departure again. We can run purely on the batteries with zero emissions if needed. They will not last long now, but we have a capacity to increase the batteries, actually double the quantity.

Ross - We've actually got capacity now in these rooms. So it's been designed to actually increase these four battery rooms from 8.8 to 13.2 megawatts right now without any infrastructure change.

Will - I appreciate it's not the quietest in the world but we are in, you know, the bowels of the ship. It's really not that loud at all.

Ross - No, and one of the key things that we're actually really proud of in this vessel is just how quiet this ship is with the technology that's been employed actually across the vessel swell, from its hull lines to its Azipods to the vibration, everything associated with this ship just makes sure that we give not only the crew the best possible environment that they can work in, but the passengers as well.

Will - We've come below the water line and now we are in, what I think is a spaceship. To my left is the open sea, and to my right is the engine room and in between is nothing. Why is that?

Dmitri - The void space is for safety reasons. It's a double skinned hull. If there is a collision, the ship will stay safe, it'll fill up just a void space and no machinery will be affected.

Ross - We're stood in the Azipod room and the way an Azipod works is a little bit unlike a conventional ship. On a conventional ship, you tend to have two propellers on the back end of the vessel ,called the stern, they tend to counter rotate, which then provides thrust moving you through the water. Now, an Azipod actually works in the opposite direction, so it actually spins and drags you through the water in a pulling motion rather than in a thrusting/pushing motion. Now this vessel is actually quick with four Azipods, so in order to propel without the drag, we actually run two of the Azipods at 70% and two of the Azipods at 30%, which give us the efficiency of dragging the vessel through the water. So the nice thing about Azipods is they actually rotate 306 degrees underwater, so if we want to move the ship completely sideways in one motion, we can actually put all the pods facing the direction that we want the vessel to move and actually shift the ship completely in a sideways motion known as crabbing.

Will - That's great, I love that. Well that was absolutely fascinating and thank you to everyone for talking me through that. We're back up here with Ross. The question though I have to ask, the whole point of this, how much of an impact does all of this have on the CO2 emissions of this ship?

Ross - The key state for this vessel, it being a unique double-ended design, means that we don't actually have to turn import. When you turn a vessel in port in order to berth at both Dover or Calais, you actually burn about seven minutes extra fuel on each of those movements. We are actually saving about 14 minutes of time and that means we can sail slightly slower. Rather than a service speed of about 19.5 knots, we can actually sail at 17.6 knots and still hold the same schedule in terms of how we sail and delivering our customers and our service on time. But more than that, what it means is that we are actually starting to reduce our footprint from a fuel perspective. This ship will actually burn about four tonnes a crossing compared to our previous vessels, which were about six a crossing. So you can see from that we're saving around 40% in terms of the fuel that we're actually burning on this vessel. That then helps towards our carbon footprint reduction with a bigger vessel as well where we're actually carrying more freight, using less fuel and a lot less carbon emissions.

A wind farm.

How do you power a fleet of electric ships?
Peter Selway, Powercon & Lisa Lewis

What does it take for a hybrid, or even fully electric ships, to become the norm? Well, like with every climate oriented topic, now we come to the part of the show with more questions and challenges than answers. And probably the biggest challenge is, unsurprisingly, power.

Peter - A vessel like this, a hybrid vessel, has got two elements to it. First of all, when it's at berth, it can have a hotel load. So this is a load that needs to provide electricity for lights, for ventilation, all the basic functions of the vessel. In a ship like this, that's about 1.7 megawatts of power. Now, to give you an idea of a megawatt, if you think of a five watt LED light bulb, a megawatt would be 200,000 of those light bulbs. To recharge those eight megawatts of batteries you've got on board, you would need 20 megawatts. That's the equivalent of 4 million light bulbs of power. So if you imagine the size of the cables, the sheer volume of power that you need to provide the power for the energy for this ship is just astronomical.

Will - Two things leap to mind immediately. One, Dover and to an extent Calais, is kind of out of the way. You've got to get all of this power down, maybe not the biggest grid in the world, and then charge up these ships. And the other problem is you've got 45-50 minutes to do it.

Peter - That's right. For decades, we had centralised power stations in the coal fields of Nottinghamshire, these massive coal power stations that generated vast amounts of power and distributed the power out around the country. The challenge with that was that the further you were away from those power stations, the smaller the connections became. It's like a human body and their veins. Ports, by their very nature, are on the outside of the country, and if you've got the infrastructure that's been built up around this infrastructure being largely in the middle of the country, it's a real challenge getting these huge amounts of power to these ports. But these things are changing, particularly with the advent of renewable energy sources. A lot of offshore wind farms are coming online, and also local production, solar panels and energy production means that the grid is becoming far more complex. And trying to manage this power demand is one of the biggest challenges we're going to face in decarbonising shipping.

Lisa - In terms of the availability of energy, whether it's electricity or another fuel source such as hydrogen, nuclear ammonia, there's increasingly a need to move away from a centralised system to a decentralised system and have it where it's needed, so local hubs. The problem with that is, if you have onsite or offshore renewable generations, such as wind turbines, most ports are in areas where there is protected wildlife. So there are prohibitions about putting up a wind turbine if you're talking about onsite generation or storage even of something as toxic as ammonia. That will be a problem for the people that live and work in those ports.

Will - And I guess the question of, you have to generate all of this electricity as well, even if it's a nuclear power station or something like that. Quite a lot of the electricity we're currently generating is by burning fossil fuels, so there's also the idea that you might end up burning fossil fuels to get this electricity in the first place.

Lisa - That's exactly right. In terms of the source of the electricity that's coming to the batteries or coming to the shore power, if it isn't green, it's just as bad as if we had a diesel engine running. So there are various policy instruments to encourage people to move away from that. Things like the insistence on using shore power at European ports, that's coming in by 2030. Again, within the EU and also coming to the UK is the emission trading scheme to encourage people to think about the source of the energy and if it's from a green supply.

Peter - So there are lots of debates about, if we're just using electricity to provide shore power or to provide energy for its batteries, aren't we just changing the problem? Instead of the diesel engine that is onboard the ship producing this electricity, aren't we just changing it to a power station? But, in actual fact, the UK grid operates around about 150 grams of CO2 per kilowatt hour, whereas the engines on board a large vessel typically produces about 650 grams of CO2 per kilowatt hour. So it is far more efficient to use grid electricity to provide this energy than trying to generate it with diesel engines. And also, as we're seeing, the UK grid is gradually being decarbonised. We're seeing more renewable energies coming online, so that figure of 150 grams per kilowatt hour is only going to come down.

The white cliffs of Dover viewed from the sea.

How shipping ports are handling the switch to electric
Megan Turner, Port of Dover

The Port of Dover isn’t owned by the government, it’s owned by the Dover Harbour Board and is therefore independent. So whilst 144 billion pounds of commerce come through every year, their annual turnover is less than 60 million. This means every decision about infrastructure change, particularly on a scale like this, has to be meticulously researched. So, with all of these caveats and challenges around electricity, what considerations are the Port of Dover making throughout all of this.

Megan - So the P&O Pioneer is just one of a set of two sister vessels. So her sister vessel, which is just the same vessel again, will be coming to the Dover Calais route in January, February time, and going into service shortly after that. We'll then have the two hybrids but, long term after that, all three of our operators have actually stated their plans to either hybridise or go fully electric, with one of the ferry operators looking to be fully electric by 2030. That would be five fully electric ferries on the route.

Will - The elephant in the room really is, though, the question of how you power stuff because, as terrible for the environment as fossil fuels are, they are a decentralised and very quick and easy way of powering stuff. With an electric boat, you need to power at each end or power at one end, and that surely puts a great amount of strain on the grid wherever you have to charge up, even if it's just one.

Megan - Yeah, definitely. A lot of the work that we've done collectively as a corridor so far has been looking at that electrical demand and what that's going to look like. On current technology, the vessels do have to charge at both ends just because the technology of the batteries means they can't do a whole round trip. We've done a lot of work around what that's going to look like, what is the size of that challenge. We think it's about 20 times more electricity than we currently have into the port. So, into the eastern docks, which is this very terminal, we have about four megawatts currently that comes to the port and we're looking to need possibly around 160 if all 13 vessels were to fully electrify. So that's a huge, huge step up from where we are currently. A lot of work has been focused on how we do that because, as well, it's not as simple as just taking it from the grid because the UK grid isn't fully decarbonised, so we would like to look at a fully decarbonised solution as well. So are there other options? A lot of work has been done on that and all the different options of which there are quite a few. It could be looking to the grid or renewable options, but the infrastructure required to support that, as I'm sure you can imagine, is huge and it's the same in France as well. They will need a similar amount of electricity that they don't currently have.

Will - How do you think the best way of getting this electricity to the port would be?

Megan - So we're currently looking at a few options, being the grid or some sort of private wire maybe to a renewable solution. There's lots of different options out there. We haven't made a firm decision on which route yet, mainly because they're still at the start of this work. What's going to work out best from a carbon perspective, but also from a cost perspective. We don't want the route to become so expensive that customers have to foot the bill. We need to make sure that this is done in a way that is still going to be cost effective. Things like renewable solutions rather than the grid normally have a cheaper cost throughout the life of that vessel, but are more expensive at the beginning. It's looking at all of those costs and figuring out which is going to be the best solution. We know that, either way, whichever route we go down, we've still got to get that huge amount of electricity to the door of either port and then, once you get it through the door, we've got to get it through a port. And that's the same for Calais so it's a quite significant task that we've got on our hands here and a lot of infrastructure will be required. We'll basically need an entire new grid system in the port and down to Dover.

Will - This is, as you say, a huge undertaking, and there are so many moving parts to consider. What's the timeline on this sort of thing?

Megan - I mean, 2030 is not really that far away in the grand scheme of what we're talking about here. As I mentioned, DFDS's ambition is fully electric by 2030 so that is a date that we're working to at the minute, to have at least five fully electrics plus the two hybrids we already have. I think it's fair to say that both Dover and Calais, for the P&O hybrids, would like to give it to them much sooner than 2030, and that's definitely what we're working to, what's the quickest timescale on which we can do this? But even for small upgrades, because of the distance they're going to have to come, it is still looking like it's going to creep close to 2030. It does look achievable at the minute with a lot of work going in right now, but the Dover Calais route is responsible for 8% of UK maritime emissions. So for one small route, that's quite a considerable amount of emissions. Even if we can have those five fully electrics and the two hybrids by 2030, that's going to reduce the emissions of Dover/Calais but also UK maritime emissions.

Will - I suppose we have to talk about the uncomfortable question which is funding. How is this going to be funded?

Megan - So far a lot of the work we've done on this has been feasibility studies and we've been really fortunate that they've been funded through the Department for Transport and Innovate UK through the Clean Maritime Demonstration Competition. Funding to actually install them, obviously that's not something that comes from the UK government. Interestingly, there's not a single shore power installation in the world that hasn't had government funding of some sort. So that puts in perspective that we're talking about a really big expense, especially for lots of the ports in UK trust ports, which we are, which adds another little complexity onto this from a legal perspective. Part of the reason we haven't made a decision yet is, how do we pay for this as the port? Do we have to work with our federal operators to pay for this together? Can we look for more funding opportunities? How can we fund it? It's probably one of our biggest questions at the minute. We know there's a little bit more feasibility work we need to do before we're quite ready to actually start installing things, mainly around the plug, as such, that is the best way to call it. There's lots of shore power systems that exist across the world. 30 megawatts per ferry is our best estimate at the minute. The amount into that ferry in 45 minutes is so considerable, what that plug's going to look like is part of the question we still have. How do we find a plug that all three ports can agree on and all three operators, because we can't afford to have a separate plug on each berth, for each operator, that's just too expensive. So that's a piece of work we know we need to do next, is looking at this plug, how do we find a plug that everybody can use that works for everybody that can actually do what we physically need to do because there's not many on the market right now that currently do that. We've put a bid in under CMDC 4, so the Clean Maritime Demonstration Competition, the fourth round, to see if we could start to look at designing that plug. Because once we've fixed that piece of the puzzle, we know everything we need to do then in theory, it's just a case of starting to install it.


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