An Uncertain Fuel Future

nick brown lloyd's registerBy Nick Brown

Last week I took part in the SEAaT Fuelling the Future Conference in London, chairing the afternoon session on future fuels. It was an interesting day and, with plenty of ship operators present, the presentations served only to emphasise the complexity of decision making for those operating in the ECAs as 2015 approaches.

Uncertainty reigns. Exemptions are being sought. For ferry operators the likely solution of switching to marine diesel in the face of short term lack of confidence in scrubbers seems to be the consensus decision. But the mix of government support for international regulation in shipping (re-affirmed by the UK Shipping Minister) but powerlessness to change European decisions; no way of knowing what the relative price and availability of competing mainstream alternatives HFO, diesel/gasoil, LNG; the likelihood that increased price of cleaner fuel (whatever is used – there is an assumption that costs will only increase) will have the perverse and unintended effect of closing ferry routes, driving traffic onto the roads and through already very busy places like Dover.

Overall, it was a bleak picture for those who have to make operational decisions. That was the morning. The focus was all about compliance, with very little emphasis on greenhouse gases.

Of course those condemned to operate in the ECAs as opposed to worldwide traders have very different perspectives. I need to see the slide again, but the fact that, as Damian Kennaby showed, 90% of the world’s bunkers are consumed by 20% of the world’s ships. Those are mainly large, worldwide trading, deep sea tankers, bulkers and container ships that do not spend a great deal of time in ECAs and, although he was looking at fuel availability, his slide makes the point that local air quality issues – to have a big impact – could be better addressed if they are not coupled with the global problem of greenhouse gases.

Could the deep sea players switch to gas or renewables? On the basis of the evidence we saw, as long as HFO is available – and scrubbers work by 2020, it’s hard to see any other alternative being attractive to most of the deep sea players.

In the afternoon, there was considerable interest in the presentations about future fuels before the Carbon War Room’s Peter Boyd talked about how the industry could reduce carbon and make money – he is working on a scheme to provide the structure to realise those savings.

The new sources of energy that were examined, in the longer term, may offer a way out of the impasse described in the morning sessions and discussing them seemed to raise the spirits. But, even if only for auxiliary power, wind power, biogas and hydrogen all have potential. Stena’s presentation on methanol offers a refreshingly practical approach to capitalising on the abundant availability of natural gas but without the need for LNG infrastructure.

For now, for deep sea ships, any meaningful impact – for the environment, for shipowners’ bottom lines – will probably have to come through efficiency measures. And I think we are going to hear a lot more about how to finance those measures.

Nick Brown is the Marine Communications Manager at Lloyd’s Register in London