Cargo ships were, not so long ago, propelled only by the wind. Majestic vessels though they were, the times for delivery were naturally extended, as a result of reliance upon the fickle mistress that is Mother Nature. A hundred or so years later from when the sails were stowed away, they are being unfurled once more; in a manner of speaking.
A new design from German company Sky Sails will see the 10,000-tonne Beluga Skysail deploy a massive kite once it reaches a safe distance from land. The kite, which is predicted to save some 10-15% off the heavy fuels it would normally burn, will do so by adding wind-power to the cargo vessels momentum.
Crossing from Bremen in Germany to Venezuela and back, the Beluga’s delivery is the first commercial test of this design, and will determine whether this product is used worldwide, or is a failed plan. If it works, it is predicted that we could soon see many of the largest cargo ships being towed – at least partially – by the power of the wind.
“This is a serious attempt to reduce bunker [fuel] costs and polluting emissions. The kite will be used whenever it is possible on the voyage, and we are convinced it will revolutionise cargo shipping. We would consider fitting them to all our ships,” said Christine Bornkessel, a spokeswoman for the Bremen-based Beluga shipping line, which has 52 merchant vessels.
The wind assistance being provided on the Beluga’s maiden voyage will be thanks to a 160 sq metre kite, which as mentioned is expected to cut fuel consumption by 10-15%. In time however, and dependant on a successful completion of the Beluga’s first trip, similar kites could increase in size and end up saving 30-35% on fuel usage. Kites could grow to as big as 5000 sq meters and could theoretically be able to tow large container ships.
Shipping is one of the world’s largest industries, and with India and China’s continuing economic growth, is only going to expand further. Approximately 100,000 vessels transport 95% of the world’s trade via the seas, but with ever rising fuel costs the shipping industry is – finally – forced to consider alternatives.
It has been estimated that commercial shipping, which over the past has used the most polluting fuels available, uses nearly two billion barrels of oil a year, emitting more than 800 million tonnes of CO2 per year. Another way to look at that figure is 4%; 4% of the planets man-made emissions.
Add to that the fact that shipping pollutes the atmosphere with more sulphur dioxide than all the world’s cars and trucks combined, and you begin to realize just how damaging the shipping industry is, to an environment that is already dangerously fragile.
Some experts have labeled the shipping industry as “notoriously conservative,” due to their resistance in helping the environment. Moves towards renewable energy have been ignored due cheaper conventional fuels. Sadly it is this “profit before environment” standpoint that seems to win out too often in business, and will end up dooming the planet.
Nevertheless, this is not a story about the woes of businesses and their lack of moral backbone to stand up, take responsibility and lead the way (although I may have just gotten my point over right there). The Beluga maiden voyage is one that could possibly shape the way of one of the planets largest industries in an environmentally watchful future. For all our sakes, let’s hope so!