Promising biofuel potential for shipping

February 21, 2012 | 00:00

Promising biofuel potential for shipping

Biofuels replacing conventional fossil fuels could enable marine transport to become carbon neutral. Biofuels can also substantially reduce the harmful emissions in the air and water, compared to fossil marine fuels. Air quality in port areas and other populated areas around our water ways will improve. In the case of a ship accident, such as the recent Costa Concordia1 tragedy, the effects of the fuels on the environment are expected to be much lower.

These are the main findings of the first broad-scale assessment into the potential of using biofuels as an alternative to oil or gas for shipping and the effects that it would have on economy and environment.

Compared to road and air transport, the shipping sector is lagging behind in improving its sustainability profile. Aiming to address this situation, Ecofys examined the technical, economic, and sustainability effects, along with the legal framework and organisational aspects of using biofuels in the shipping sector. The study was commissioned by the European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA).

The study showed it is technically possible to replace marine fossil fuels with biofuels for use in ship engines. Adjustments to the fuel supply chain depend on ship type and engine type, the type of biofuels that is introduced and the blend percentage. A gradual switch to biofuels would offer new business opportunities in the whole fuel supply chain for marine fuels. This includes the current fuel bunker companies supplying the shipping market while the blending of biofuels with marine fuels is expected to be most likely at the bunker stations.

However, market barriers, such as uncoordinated market incentives, need to be tackled to accelerate the introduction of biofuels despite their currently high price. For instance, the Renewable Energy Directive sets obligatory targets for renewable fuels in the transport sector, including the use of renewable fuels in shipping transport. However, member states have a certain amount of freedom to implement the Directive on this part in their national legislation, often leading to a preferred offset of renewable fuels in road transport. Also, for shipping, the legislation on a European level complementary to the international global legislation can be confusing. Aside from the Renewable Energy Directive on European Commission level, restrictions on sulphur content of marine fuels are set out in the international Marpol Convention2.

“If sulphur restrictions for marine fuels are tightened, biofuels triumph as they contain no sulphur. Their biodegradability also reduces the risk of marine pollution in case of spills. These advantages are not yet well reflected in current legislation,” Anouk Florentinus, project manager at Ecofys, observed. "Introducing biofuels as a sustainable alternative fuel can change the current fuel supply chain completely. We have already seen this for road transport; we see this in current developments in aviation, and are certain this can also create new opportunities in the shipping sector," she said.

Viewed from the perspective of “The Energy Report, 100% Renewable Energy by 2050,” presented in February 2011 by Ecofys in cooperation with the World Wildlife Fund, the work showed that biofuels can become a vital sustainable solution for intercontinental transport of goods and people via ships, where other renewable alternatives such as electrified transport are not an option.

To access the full report, click here.

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