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Is LNG power the future of ocean shipping?

By William DiBenedetto, CBN Feature Editor

While containership operators and ports wrestle with the advent of mega-ships, volatile fuel prices and equally volatile rates on major trade routes, Totem Ocean Trailer Express is pointing the way to a different future for ocean shipping.

How different? It’s potentially revolutionary, both operationally and environmentally, because TOTE is about to begin operating the world’s first LNG-powered containerships. Earlier this year, the Isla Bella—the first of two Marlin Class container vessels—was launched in San Diego. The 3,100-TEU vessel, built by TOTE in the U.S. in partnership with General Dynamics NASSCO, will enter service between Jacksonville, Florida and San Juan, Puerto Rico in the fourth quarter of 2015. The second Marlin Class vessel is scheduled for launch in the third quarter and is expected to enter service in the first quarter of 2016.

TOTE Shipholdings and Saltchuk Resources, TOTE’s parent company, secured a $324.6 million loan guarantee from the U.S. Maritime Administration for the ships. The financing was made available under MARAD’s Title XI Loan Guarantee Program. TOTE and Saltchuk qualified for the loan because the new ships exemplify "advancement in shipbuilding technology" and are being built in a U.S. shipyard. General Dynamics NASSCO has employed more than 600 workers to help construct the vessels.

The LNG-powered ships are among the most environmentally responsible vessels of their kind, TOTE says. By switching to LNG power, TOTE will reduce NOx emissions by 98 percent, SOx by 97 percent, carbon dioxide by 72 percent and particulate matter by 60 percent in the Puerto Rico trade.

In addition, the Marlins will accommodate nearly three times the number of 53-foot containers than ships that currently serve the Puerto Rico trade, TOTE says.

"Building the Marlins has been about change as well as bold and innovative thinking. NASSCO and our other partners have enabled us to build these ships that reflect our commitment to the environment and doing what is right," said Anthony Chiarello, president and CEO of TOTE, at the launch ceremony of the Isla Bella.

TOTE is also the launch customer of MAN’s ME-GI 539-ton engine design. Doosan Engine manufactured the main and auxiliary engines. Pivotal LNG, a wholly owned subsidiary of AGL Resources and WesPac

Midstream, will supply the LNG for the ships in Jacksonville, FL.

Regarding LNG power, TOTE is also the first to convert its existing fleet to run on natural gas. Its two Orca Class roll-on/roll-off vessels—the M.V. Midnight Sun and M.V. North Star—which operate in the Alaska trade, will be "converted with minimal time out of service and return as the most environmentally advanced ships in the nation," the company says. Total investment for the conversion is estimated to exceed $80 million.

TOTE says the Orcas will reduce sulfur oxide (SOx) emissions by 100 percent; particulate matter (PM) by 91 percent; nitrogen oxide (NOx) by 90 percent; and carbon dioxide (CO2) by 35 percent.

General Dynamics NASSCO is designing the conversion. Wärtsilä will supply the main engines, generators and integrated LNG storage and fuel gas handling systems. Puget Sound Energy will supply LNG at a $275 million dockside LNG facility on 33 acres at the Port of Tacoma.

With 50 ships using LNG as a fuel in 2014 and a similar number currently on order, LNG-powered engines and related infrastructure are gaining significant traction.

According to a recent report in Port Finance International, the International Association of Ports and Harbors has launched an LNG bunkering website targeted at port authorities that are considering the rollout of LNG as a shipping fuel. An IAPH working group on LNG-fueled vessels has developed guidelines for safe LNG bunkering operations, providing ports with background information to pursue the technology. The website, www.lngbunkering.org, introduces harmonized LNG bunker checklists.

"The site is intended to be a resource and a conversation-starter among ports and stakeholders because we believe that LNG is the ship’s fuel of the future and ports must prepare to offer safe storage and bunkering of LNG for shipping lines," said IAPH president Grant Gilfillan, CEO-director, Port Authority of New South Wales, Australia.