Dr. Leah Dundon, director of the Vanderbilt Climate Change Initiative, speaks at the Tennessee River Valley Conference earlier this month in Franklin, Tenn. (photo by Shelley Byrne)

Vanderbilt, Blue Sky Investigate Greener Future For Barging

Vanderbilt University’s Climate Change Initiative is working with the Blue Sky Maritime Coalition and others to study how to make barge transportation even more environmentally friendly.

In a presentation titled “Decarbonization of the Inland Waterway Sector in the United States,” Dr. Leah Dundon, director of the Vanderbilt Climate Change Initiative and assistant chief-freight logistics at Vanderbilt University, spoke at the Tennessee River Valley Association (TRVA) Conference recently to detail some of those studies and their findings.

While research has continued to show that waterborne shipping emits lower greenhouse gases per ton-mile as compared to rail and truck, Vanderbilt has been working on “truth-testing” estimates of emissions by modes, Dundon said. It has done so by using emissions data available from one company as well as sources like Inland Waterways Trust Fund receipts.

Ultimately, she said, even though studies have shown that barge transportation is “greener” than the other modes, she said total emissions are likely to increase if the industry does not actively pursue efforts to lower them.

The institute looked at whether the industry could wait for fleet turnover to address the issue.

“The answer is a resounding no,” she said, noting the long life of towing vessels.

Work With Blue Sky Coalition

Vanderbilt University is working with Blue Sky Maritime Coalition, which was founded in June 2021 with 22 members and now has nearly 120 member organizations focused on achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions in the maritime value chain. The coalition now includes 17 inland member companies including Ingram, Campbell Transportation, Canal Barge, Great Lakes Dredge and Dock, Kirby and Maritime Partners, director of operations Megan O’Leary said.

Blue Sky is working on a roadmap that will inform specific near-, medium- and long-term tasks and milestones for the coalition, O’Leary said.

“This roadmap is a collaborative effort with input from all members,” she said. “It will be a living document that is continually updated as time and situations progress and as targets are achieved.”

The Vanderbilt Climate Change Initiative is a Blue Sky founding member and has been active and engaged, O’Leary said, noting that Dundon is a “critical resource” to the coalition.

Dundon has authored three “Pathways To Net-Zero 2050 In the North American Shipping Industry” position papers for Blue Sky Maritime, including a May 2023 report on optimization of operational, technological and digitalization trends to drive emissions reduction. Among other topics, it considered how the use of artificial intelligence may be helpful in reducing emissions. The position papers did not create or collect original data, but researched, analyzed and synthesized available existing studies.

Additionally, Dundon was the project lead for the “Report of the Greenhouse Gas Inventory Project of the Blue Sky Maritime Coalition.” O’Leary also called her “a critical contributor” to Blue Sky’s National Science Foundation Regional Innovation Engine grant proposal in January.

“The research and insights from Dr. Dundon and VCCI’s collaborative work with Blue Sky has laid the groundwork for our coalition to identify misalignments, baselines and targets,” O’Leary said.

Most recently, Dundon was among the principal investigators who completed the research study “Marine Transport: Documenting the Need for Value-Chain Collaborative Approaches to Achieve Decarbonization” for the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Maritime Transportation Research & Education Center (MarTREC) between January 2022 and August 2023. The study was published September 30. It looked at the role and value of value-chain coalitions like Blue Sky in addressing decarbonization, seeking to better understand both the benefits and challenges.

“Our work revealed these coalitions are very important because every individual company/entity involved in the sector is dependent on the system in which they operate (fuel providers, ship builders, lenders, transportation companies, etc),” Dundon said. “Trying to decarbonize in a silo when the system around you does not support that decarbonization effort is not likely to be successful. This was the challenge that Blue Sky was designed to address.”

Digging Into The Data

Dundon pointed out aspects of recent studies, both those done in cooperation with Blue Sky Maritime and others, that she believed to be most of interest to the navigation industry in her TRVA presentation.

Dundon and her colleagues looked at the viability of various fuels on the inland waterways, ultimately finding that the industry has unique challenges, including varying operational needs as well as limits on vessel length and overall dimensions, weight and draft because of lock sizes and river depth and width.

As a result, no one fuel or propulsion system can address all needs, she said. However, electric propulsion systems show promise for fleet boats, with their regular schedules and limited geographic areas of operation.

Market growth is not likely to adequately drive investment in these technologies, so regulatory or market incentives are needed to make these changes commercially viable, Dundon said.

A study analyzing alternative fuel uptake in the global fleet looked at both ships in operation and those on order, finding that liquefied natural gas (LNG) is in use now and expanding in the short-term, and that in the “medium term” of five to 15 years, more vessels are expected to use LNG, methanol and other biofuels. Longer term, she said, in 2050 and beyond, the global industry appears poised for hydrogen carriers and other transformative technologies, including a transition to e-Methanol 100 percent sourced from carbon dioxide, vessels powered by ammonia and the potential for nuclear power.

In looking at pathways and challenges to net-zero 2050 in the North American marine shipping industry, Dundon said the inland river industry is likely to be served well by electrification and portable energy modules, although such efforts are not without challenges. She believes coastal and harbor tugs will see some electrification along with hydrogen fuel cells, with current investments already taking place in California.

Cruise vessels and ferries are candidates for LNG, electric, fuel cells and biofuels, Dundon said, noting a $1.3 billion investment to electrify fewer than 10 ferries in Washington state.

Opportunities Ahead

The Vanderbilt Climate Change Initiative also has more educational opportunities coming up.

Dundon will sit on a panel at COP28, the United Nations Climate Change Conference, which is coming up November 30-December 12 in the United Arab Emirates, participating with Blue Sky and several other members of the U.S. and international shipping sector. They will discuss some recent announcements, she said.

The Inflation Reduction Act is also bringing unprecedented opportunities to shipping and other sectors to revitalize infrastructure and work toward decarbonization, Dundon said. As a result, she said she has been working on grant applications with Blue Sky members and continues to actively look for opportunities to develop tangible projects that can serve as models.

Dundon also hopes to develop the MarTREC report into a research paper for publication in a peer-reviewed journal.

Following the conclusion of Dundon’s presentation, Cline Jones, TRVA executive director, asked if the industry is likely to meet the goal of net-zero emissions by 2050. Dundon said it is technically feasible but suggested that progress may be slow commercially until the cost of not putting additional carbon into the air is less than doing so. While she has not seen any marketplace signals that indicate an imminent adjustment, Dundon said she and others are paying close attention to an upcoming SEC ruling that could spur some change. “Scope 3” emissions rules may also have an impact, as well as Canadian national carbon pricing as Canada is a large importer of U.S. goods.

Dundon told The Waterways Journal that she believes there is reason for optimism for eventually meeting climate goals in the shipping industry.

“I think we should be optimistic about the move away from fossil fuels as our primary energy source,” she said. “Just as there were challenges and opportunities when society moved from burning wood to coal to oil (each of which has served at times as the nation’s primary energy source) this is another and unique transition that we all serve to benefit from if we can get it right.”

Caption for photo: Dr. Leah Dundon, director of the Vanderbilt Climate Change Initiative, speaks at the Tennessee River Valley Conference earlier this month in Franklin, Tenn. (photo by Shelley Byrne)