image: B9 Energy
What comes after fossil fuel powered containers shipping is a pet topic of mine to contemplate and a new story from CNN on what the folks at B9 Energy (primarily a wind power company...) are planning in the way of carbon-neutral three-masted cargo ships is really pretty inspiring--even if some of the react and contextual quotes in the article show a decided lack of vision. But the ultra-cool you've got to go backward to progress cargo ship first.It's Not A Question of If Sail Returns, But When
Planned to go into production by 2012, the cargo ships will be sail powered, with the sails automatically adjusting to wind conditions and employing kite sails where appropriate. A biofuel-powered engine (which can also run on liquid natural gas) will provide 40% of the propulsion.
Green aspects of construction include:
The steel plates used in the vessel will be created from recycled steel melted by the heat from torrefied wood, a process that does not release fossil carbon into the atmosphere. The ship's performance will be improved by using light construction materials to reduce its weight...
If you're wondering about global trade physically slowing down, due to efforts to reduce fuel consumption and emissions from container ships, the point-to-point speed today is not that much different than the fastest clipper ships--assuming constant wind of course.
Initially intended to operate within European waters, particularly in the North Sea and Baltic, the ship will carry 9,000 tons of cargo--about one-tenth of typical modern container ships but roughly five times the capacity of typical sail-powered cargo vessels at the height of the age of sail in the nineteenth century. B9 notes that on the routes targeted right now, there are currently 1,500 similarly-sized ships in operation, so the size discrepancy with the transoceanic container ships doesn't concern them right now.
Besides, as B9's chairman rightly points out, "By most people's estimates we have reached peak oil. Sooner of later the fuel will run and there will simply be no alternative. It's not a question of if, but when" sailing vessels return to shipping goods.
Which brings me to the part that is extraordinarily lacking in vision, but is all too common.
Sail Power Will Be Economical Because Our Economy Will Be Different Than Today's
The end of the CNN piece is pepper with quotes from the communications director of the UK's Chamber of Shipping. Jeremy Harrison makes point after point picking out the theme that the size of modern container ships means they have tremendous economies of scale, that unless sail-powered vessels get much much larger, will mean fossil fuel powered ships have the upper hand for a long time to come, even with rising fuel prices.
The thing that Harrison's comments utterly lack is a recognition that there will come a time in the not so distant future, later this century, when oil will likely not be available at any price. At least not in the quantities required to keep either transcontinental shipping or aviation going. Basic math also shows that the amount of land required to simply replace fossil fuels with biofuels is daunting, and quite possibly crippling for the amount of food production required to feed the coming wave of 9 billion people.
Harrison says "I just can't see how it will be economical" to replace the current system of container ships with sail-powered cargo ships.
Well, it will be economical because we may well not have another option and our systems of production and distribution will be forced to adapt to the conditions, likely with less global distribution--at least of finished products.
In any case, congrats to B9 for seeing the future and constructively working towards building a decent one. I want to be on the maiden voyage in 2012.
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More on Shipping:
Slow Freight: Sail Power Doesn't Need a Cast of Thousands
How Can We Reduce Oil Consumptions & Still Ship Goods and Ourselves Around the Globe?
Cargo Ship With Kites: First Trans-Atlantic Trip a Success!
Modern Cargo Ship Now Traveling Slower Than 19th Century Clippers