Thursday, May 20, 2010

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Can commercial shipping ever embrace wind power?

What's a natural resource that is free, produces zero carbon emissions and has been used to power ships since time immemorial?

The answer is of course the wind. The graceful sailing ships that sent the likes of Christopher Columbus and Vasco da Gama to the Americas and India are long gone, though, replaced by vast iron vessels loaded with crude oil, minerals and neat stacks of shipping containers to feed the voracious global economy.

Shipping is responsible for ferrying over 90 percent of global trade and produces about three percent of mankind's carbon emissions, or more than the CO2 produced by the German economy.

Yet reducing these emissions means tackling idiosyncratic maritime laws, the vested interests of countries such as China that rely on shipping to fuel rapid economic growth, and convincing conservative ship owners to embrace green technology.

Ironically, one of the most promising technologies to reduce ship fuel consumption is the same one used thousands of years ago when ancient mariners first ventured across seas on rickety boats -- sails.

German entrepreneur Stephan Wrage is among those re-inventing the sail and his 21st century version is very different from the sails that graced the masts of Columbus' Santa Maria.

As a teenager, Wrage figured he could speed up his sailing boat if he attached a sports kite overhead. Two decades later, he has translated that idea into a kite system for large vessels such as bulk carriers.

Kites propel ships faster than traditional sails, Wrage said, because they are dynamic, not fixed, and can move around to capture winds coming from different directions.

The system, he said, can save between 10 to 30 percent of fuel on a single voyage, a significant cost saving given that 60 to 80 percent of a vessel's operation costs derive from fuel.

Convincing shipping companies to buy costly green technologies, however, is easier said than done as the industry recovers from the economic slowdown and faces volatile fuel prices that make it difficult to calculate returns on investment.

A carbon emissions scheme, in which ships would be penalized for inefficient fuel use and rewarded for conserving fuel, would spur green investments in a conservative industry that has been slow to embrace new technologies.


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