Turning Massive Cargo Ships Into Sailboats Could Save 25 Million Tons of Fuel

Huge vessels carrying heavy loads create heaps of carbon dioxide. Solar-collecting sails could be the solution.

These sails aren't for leisure cruising. (Photo: Courtesy EcoMarine Power)
Rachel is a science journalist writing for venues such as The New York Times and Smithsonian.

If the oceanic cargo industry were a country, it would be the sixth largest emitter of carbon dioxide worldwide. Yet marine shipping companies have largely steered clear of the renewable energy alternatives that land lubbers popularly discuss. One company aims to change that trend by harnessing resources the open ocean has no shortage of: sun and wind, captured by a solar sail. 

While several shipping vessel companies are toying with the idea of outfitting their vehicles with massive 100-foot metal sails, Eco Marine Power, a startup founded in 2010 and based in Fukuoka, Japan, pushed that idea to an environmental extreme. “We wanted to design a platform for renewable energy of which the sail is part, but not the only part,” said Greg Atkinson, Eco Marine Power's director. “So we’re creating a sail that also collects solar energy.”

Atkinson first noticed the need for such a device during his years serving in the Australian Navy. Sitting out on the open sea for weeks on end, he found it bizarre that no one thought to capture power from winds that constantly whipped across the vessel’s deck.

As he investigated this potential opportunity further, he soon learned of the shipping industry’s massive pollution problem. To power their back-and-forth trips across the seas, cargo-shipping vessels burn huge amounts of fossil fuels and thus release greenhouse gases. Just one Capesize Bulk Carrier may use 10,400 tons of bunker fuel per year. Multiply that by the 90,000 cargo vessels currently traversing the oceans and the figure hits around 250 million tons of fuel burned annually. This accounts for about 4 percent of anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions. Researchers have also linked this pollution to around $330 billion in heath costs in heart and lung disease annually.

If Eco Marine Power’s product, dubbed the EnergySail, is successful, it will cut down 10 percent of outfitted ships’ annual fossil fuel use. Smaller ships could see an even higher savings. When the ships idle at port, the solar panels will store and provide energy, also cutting down on polluting emissions that cause health hazards. Atkinson is confident that solar technology will only improve with time, too, which means the fuel and money savings will only increase.

Rather than outfit old, existing ships with the rigid solar sails, Eco Marine Power proposes creating a fleet of ships, called Aquarius Eco Ships, with the sails incorporated in the design from the beginning. The company hopes investments would pay for themselves within five to seven years on ships that average a 20 to 25 year life.

Eco Marine Power is currently in the testing phase, working out ways to adjust the control system so the sails automatically align themselves with winds and weather. The company collaborates with several other firms that specialize in energy storage, manufacturing and engineering for designing the sails.

As soon as the control system is smoothed out, Eco Marine Power plans to move into sea trials to verify its initial data. Getting the technology off the ground may prove the easy part, however. So far, Atkinson and his colleagues have largely met with resistance when initially discussing the idea with shipping companies. Many ships have already converted into LNG carriers, or tankers designed to run on liquefied natural gas. But Atkinson points out that LNG still counts as a finite fossil fuel. It still pollutes, and it will eventually run out.

Other companies Atkinson approached responded a bit more favorably, offering advice on how to improve the design or safety. But still others expressed strong reservations. “Some of the responses have been quite shocking,” he said. “They say that basically the oil tanker market gets their fuel for free, so they’re not interested, but that sort of misses the point since they’re still polluting.”

Eco Marine Power is taking this feedback in stride, working especially to emphasize the Energy Sail’s potential economic perks. “We hope to reach a situation where there are so many advantages to doing this that they basically can’t refuse,” Atkinson said. “We have to first attack the economics, then show that this will also provide a cleaner environmental path.”

Ultimately, Atkinson hopes that the public will become more aware and vocal about the problem, which could help to persuade shipping companies to change their ways. “There’s not a public demand for clean shipping, but that’s what needs to happen,” he said. “People need to look down their supply chain and insist on not having old diesel ships spewing toxins into the air to get their products.” 


Rachel Nuwer is a science journalist writing for venues such as The New York Times, Scientific American, Smithsonian and Audubon Magazine, among others. She lives in Brooklyn. Rachelnuwer.com | @rachelnuwer | Takepart.com

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