Green hydrogen for sustainable shipping

4 March, 2020

Will ships be able to power themselves exclusively with 100% clean energy? This is the big question facing maritime transport at this stage of the ecological transition. Today, liquefied natural gas is the most sustainable real alternative, although there are other options that are helping to solve the problem. One example is the case of the ‘Energy Observer’. This boat, the first to be electrically powered with green hydrogen, is travelling around the world without producing any polluting emissions.

Technology and innovation are allied with environmental commitment in an interesting project that is being used to test whether the combination of hydrogen and renewable energies can power boats. The boat began its journey in Paris to the Atlantic Ocean more than three years ago and its plans including visiting about 50 countries with more than 100 stopovers when the expedition concludes in late 2022.

The ‘Energy Observer’, built in the early 80s, has been a pioneer from its beginnings. Its innovative configuration—at the time it was the largest maxi-catamaran in the world—marked the evolution of multihull vessels, so much so that in 1984 it set a record by being the first sailing boat capable of sailing around 500 miles in less than 24 hours.

A decade later, it would become part of another sailing landmark: the central part of the boat was the base of the ‘ENZA New Zealand’ multi-hull vessel with which Robin Knox-Johnston and Peter Blake won the Jules Verne Trophy in 1994 when they sailed around the world in less than 75 days.

The ‘Energy Observer’, which has been sailing around the world on the high seas for three years, is confirming the possibilities of marine hydrogen within the energy transition process, although there are still challenges ahead.

An adventure with electric engines

Before starting its current sustainable adventure, it was necessary to adapt the vessel, or rather, to transform it, so much so that its weight could be reduced to under 30 tons, making it the lightest boat with battery storage systems.

The changes are also visible to the naked eye. For the generation of the solar and wind energy that powers the two electric engines, three photovoltaic panels were installed, occupying more than 130 square metres of the catamaran’s deck. It also has two wind turbines and a 50 square metre energy kite. All of this is essential to make it move using renewable energy.

The above are two of the boat’s power sources. But what happens on days when there is neither sun nor wind? It is clear that a backup is needed to enable the machinery to continue working. And this where the green hydrogen that the vessel is able to autogenerate from the sea comes into play. Specifically, it is extracted by electrolysis from the sea water that the boat itself collects as it moves.

The hydrogen is stored in a fuel cell to be used as needed, so as to complement the solar and wind energy, making sailing completely sustainable. It does not give off any greenhouse gas emissions or fine particles into the atmosphere. Sun, wind and water are the resources that make this boat’s electric motors work.


The crucial role of hydrogen

The ‘Energy Observer’, which has been sailing around the world on the high seas for three years, is confirming the possibilities of marine hydrogen within the energy transition process, although there are still challenges ahead. As things stand, it needs to offer efficient auto-supply and for its cost not to be prohibitive.

This is a crucial issue for making its use viable when the benefits of hydrogen as an alternative to other polluting fuels have already been demonstrated. It has been calculated, for example, that it can generate four times more energy than coal and three times more than diesel, all with the added benefit of reducing emissions into the atmosphere.

Enagás is no stranger to these developments and is promoting non-electrical renewable energy projects which specifically include green hydrogen. It has undeniable potential for channelling large amounts of renewable energy from electricity generation and for storing and managing energy on a massive scale over long periods of time.

In fact, beyond its application in the future of transport, the European Commission recognises the important role that this gas will play in the energy mix. It has gone as far as to express the need for a European hydrogen network to be established to connect Africa and Europe to ensure a continuous and flexible clean supply.

It is precisely the ambitious deployment of renewable electricity included in the PNIEC (National Integrated Energy and Climate Plan), on top of the fact that Spain has a large number of natural resources that make it an ideal place at European level to lead a project of this nature within the so-called IPCEI (Important Project of Common European Interest).

It is necessary to establish a roadmap with medium- and long-term guidelines to promote the use of hydrogen from renewable sources. This process will require, among other things, achieving an efficient and less costly energy storage solution, as well as generation in line with existing demand and reducing energy dependence on foreign sources, all while decarbonising industrial sectors that are difficult to electrify.

As we continue to move towards a cleaner horizon, with LNG as today’s most realistic alternative today, hydrogen is beginning to play an increasingly important role. The ‘Energy Observer’ is only a first step, as there are a number of limitations to be overcome, but the sustainable route has already been taken. Now it must be maintained.