Webinar Examines Maritime Decarbonization View From 40,000 Feet

The global effort to decarbonize the maritime sector must take an “all of the above” approach in looking at decarbonization solutions—and alternative fuels. 

That was the consensus of a panel of maritime officials and experts at a webinar titled “Maritime Decarbonization: It’s Complicated” held on  May 23. The panel was introduced by Maritime Administrator Ann Philips, and hosted by Michael Carter, associate administrator for environment and compliance at the Department of Transportation.

Panelists included Kathy Metcalf, president and CEO of the Chamber of Shipping of America; Andrew Wishnia, deputy assistant secretary for climate policy in the office of the assistant secretary for transportation policy in the Department of Transportation; Ian Gansler, government relations associate for the American Association of Port Authorities; and Ingrid Irigoyen, associate director-ocean and climate for the Aspen Institute Energy and Environment Program.

List Of Decarbonization Projects

Gansler noted that AAPA members have conducted surveys that identify $50 billion in potential decarbonization projects that could be built or financed within the next 10 years. These include everything from vehicle electrification to hydrogen fuel projects and shore power enhancement. While the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act has directed unprecedented resources to the port and maritime sectors, he said, recent logistics crises have made clear that this can only be a start and that more support is needed from government. 

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Irigoyen said while the Aspen Institute’s Energy and Environment Program has been around for 50 years, its focus on maritime decarbonization is recent. It has worked with carriers and their customers to reduce the carbon footprints of supply chains in the maritime sector. “Maritime decarbonization is inevitable, and it must happen,” she said. “It is doable, but it needs to be cost-effective.”

Wishnia noted that President Joe Biden has stated his goal is for the U.S. to get to “net-zero” emissions by the year 2050, and for the maritime sector to cut its carbon emissions in half by 2030. He said that as the shipping sector grows, and as shoreside industries reduce their emissions, the proportional carbon contribution of the maritime sector will also grow. One way to address the issue is with the creation of “green shipping corridors” in designated water routes. 

Best Emphasis

Carter said agencies need to hear from industry about where emphases should best be placed: international or domestic shipping, ports or ships?

Irigoyen said one big challenge is deciding which fuels and technologies to advance. While some “transition fuels” like renewable diesel or biodiesel may be a short-term way to reduce emissions, “none of them can get us to zero at scale on a life-cycle basis,” she said. Irigoyen said she was concerned about “technology lock-in,” or vested interests getting behind one favored technology or fuel to the detriment of other solutions. 

She said U.S. federal agencies like MarAd can use federal vessels, including research vessels, to show proof-of-concept on carbon reducing technologies quickly, to build confidence and attract private investment. 

Metcalf noted that water transport is already the most efficient and greenest mode of transport. “We don’t want to encourage modal shifts” to rail or truck, she said. “Most of us believe we need to be fuel-agnostic—we don’t want to eliminate any one fuel source.” Some “transition fuels” may be needed, as different fuel and power types serve different purposes. In many cases, she said, it may be more efficient to retrofit existing vessels for new fuel types than to build new vessels. 

She also noted that building new vessels with new fuels won’t work unless the infrastructure to supply and distribute those fuels is in place. New fuels like hydrogen and ammonia “just are not out there yet in sufficient volumes,” she said. Liquefied natural gas could be an important transition fuel.

Carter agreed, saying electric batteries might work for harbor tugs, but are impractical for large ocean-going vessels. Some U.S. ocean carriers like Matson Line and Crowley have already launched LNG vessels. He said it’s important for agencies like the International Maritime Organization to come up with efficiency measures to determine the true energy and carbon efficiency of “what we already have.” The biggest fear of industry, he said, is getting locked into big, unrecoverable expenses for technologies that “won’t get us to zero [i.e., net-zero carbon emissions].”

Decentralized Port System

Gansler noted that ports are locally governed. Most are landlord ports. The regions and corridors in which they are located may have different needs and decarbonization pathways to be met by different fuels. “It’s clear that this industry needs more support from government” to achieve decarbonization goals, he said. A very small percentage of RAISE, INFRA or MEGA grants goes to ports, he noted—and the maritime industry is already the greenest and most efficient transportation mode.

Irigoyen recommended partnerships between ports of call on the same route—both private and public partnerships—and said each green corridor could define which fuel or fuels best met its goals. 

Metcalf stressed the importance of crew training in handling alternative fuels. “When I got out of the Merchant Marine Academy, LNG vessels were being built,” she said. “We need to work with the Coast Guard and maritime academies to train workers to handle the new fuels.” Carter said a myriad of federal agencies would have to coordinate with each other to devise safety regulations for the new systems, along with new fuel tank designs. There is a joint discussion group with members from the Department of Energy, Coast Guard and Environmental Protection Agency that talks about these issues, he said. 

Ganlser offered a final thought to port operators: plan ahead when ordering new electric equipment like cranes. Electric grid upgrades are expensive. He said programs like Port Infrastructure Development Grants and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act would go a long way toward meeting the need, but they are only a start. “Politicians like to think in terms of four-year or five-year cycles, but maritime decarbonization is a decades-long project that will not be accomplished in four- or five-year cycles.”Despite the challenges, said Irigoyen,“We can do this if we are creative and open-minded.”

MarAd said it will make the webinar video available on its website within a few days.