Electric barges are coming back to European canals

rendering portliner barge
© Port-Liner barge

But these are certainly not "the first emission-free barges on Europe's waterways"; the idea is 125 years old.

According to the Guardian, "The world’s first fully electric, emission-free and potentially crewless container barges are to operate from the ports of Antwerp, Amsterdam, and Rotterdam from this summer." They are calling it the “Tesla of the canals”, running on big batteries that will push the 170 foot long by 22 foot wide barges. The barges will cruise the inland canals of Belgium and the Netherlands; the Dutch manufacturer, Port-Liner, builds the batteries into a shipping container, so it can go into any barge.

“This allows us to retrofit barges already in operation, which is a big boost for the industry’s green energy credentials,” said [Port-Liner CEO] Mr van Meegen. “The containers are charged onshore by carbon-free energy provider Eneco, which sources solar power, windmills and renewables.”

But the Guardian, and even industry-based sites like The Loadstar, are incorrect running headlines like Port-Liner launches first emission-free barges on Europe's waterways. Barges have been around for hundreds of years because a horse can pull ten times as much cargo by barge than by cart, albeit with some emissions. But more to the point, they have been running on electricity since 1893. According to Kris De Decker of Low Tech Magazine, that's when trolley wires were hung on parts of the Erie Canal in the USA and on the Bourgogne canal in France. It was totally zero emissions too; Kris writes:

The installation at the Bourgogne canal gave great satisfaction and it was the first electrical boat propulsion system to be operated on a practical, commercial basis. Moreover, it was a zero-emissions transport system: the electricity was generated on both sides of the track by means of turbines placed at the cascades of two successive locks, having a fall of 7.5 metres (24.5 feet). Apart from the ecological advantage, the use of renewable electricity made that the line was working at almost no cost.

In Germany, this electric barge on the Rhine has been running since 1935. "The system is still working today because the fumes of diesel-powered barges (which have replaced the electric mules along the rest of the canal) would suffocate the bargemen in the long tunnel."

In a lot of ways, a barge is like a tram or a streetcar, following a fixed route. And as in a streetcar, direct electrification is the most energy-efficient way to move, far more efficient than making batteries, putting them in a container and having to move them as well as the cargo. In a lot of ways, it is a much more sensible solution than batteries, and it has been around almost as long as electricity.

But then, it is not nearly as sexy as a "Tesla of the canals", just like a trolley or streetcar on land is not as sexy as a Tesla of the roads. It just probably would move more freight at lower cost and could take thousands of diesel trucks off the roads.

The new Port-Liner barges are a great step forward from diesel but don't call them the first electric, emission-free barges. They are off 125 years.

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