Hydrogen, the shipping partner of the future

15 September, 2022

Maritime transport is of paramount importance in today’s world. With 80% of goods carried by sea, world trade and economies are directly dependent on this sector. It is therefore necessary to protect and even incentivise it, but to do so it is essential to move towards decarbonisation, as transport currently accounts for one quarter of the EU’s total greenhouse gas emissions.

Greenhouse gas emissions from maritime transport are growing steadily and by 2050 could be 130% higher than in 2008 if no action is taken – a figure that clashes with the targets set. The European Union, for example, needs to reduce transport emissions by 90% – including all types – to achieve its climate neutrality targets.

The challenge of decarbonising maritime mobility

Transport is a difficult sector to decarbonise. And although shipping contributes less to greenhouse gas emissions than road or air transport, it still accounts for 14% of emissions. Reducing this figure depends on a number of factors that are already being worked on:

  • Public funding to support innovative technologies whose deployment requires significant investment.
  • Development of a regulatory framework to facilitate decarbonisation.
  • Public procurement as a lever for change to speed up the transition.
  • A commitment to diversification, developing complementary models that reduce risk and accelerate change. For example, green hydrogen for high-speed transport and ammonia for long distances.
  • First steps of a simpler transition (e.g. transforming short-sea fleets), then tackling the more complex challenges (such as offshore fleets).

The European Union needs to reduce transport emissions by 90% to achieve its climate neutrality targets

This is not easy to achieve, especially considering that the deployment of clean propulsion technologies for maritime transport requires global investments of 1 trillion dollars according to the Asociación de Navieros Españoles (Spanish Shipping Association). However in return, not only will there be a sharp fall in emissions (with all its associated benefits), but there will be a huge industrial, technological and financial opportunity.

The European Union has already taken action and the Fit for 55 targets call on member states to submit plans for the decarbonisation of the sector by 2024.

An alternative for greener transport

As shipping is expected to boom in the coming years, institutions such as the European Parliament are encouraging measures to prevent it from becoming a problem for the climate emergency.

These include the gradual removal of heavy fuels through incentives (such as infrastructure development, tax benefits or “green” public procurement), digitalisation of ports (predictive maintenance, remote assistance, asset tracking, autonomous vehicles, etc.), regulation of access to highly polluting ships and promotion of innovation, among others. A plan to deploy alternative fuels infrastructure in seaports, in particular for electricity and hydrogen, is also envisaged.

In terms of reducing emissions from vessels, mainly ships, there are different options. From increasing the efficiency of the engines, to reducing the speed of navigation, to changing the fuels used.

Electrification is only a solution for ships making short, recurring journeys between two specific points, where a guaranteed charging infrastructure is available. However, renewable gases such as bio-LNG are also put forward as a potential solution, as they have high abatement capacity (ability to reduce emissions) and other advantages over electrification.

On the other hand, hydrogen, as an emerging technology, is still an expensive system compared to the oil derivatives used by 96% of merchant ships. Significant investments in infrastructure (both ships and port facilities) are required to change the oil-centred model; but it is seen as one of the main hopes for full decarbonisation of the sector.

Although major infrastructure investments are required, hydrogen is seen as one of the main hopes for the decarbonization of the sector.

For this reason, initiatives such as the European Hydrogen Strategy are so important. In the context of maritime transport, more specifically, the European Commission’s FuelEU Maritime initiative aims to incentivise its use as a sustainable alternative fuel by reducing market barriers to its use and promoting market-ready technical options.

There are also other initiatives such as Net Zero hive, promoted by Enagás and Puertos del Estado, whose aim is to reinvigorate the use of current port infrastructures for the use of the energy sources of the future. The aim is to adapt the facilities in the port’s area of influence and the terminals of energy companies located in Spanish ports for the production of low-carbon fuels such as hydrogen, bio-LNG or synthetic methane.

But why is hydrogen attractive for shipping? We can cite the three main reasons given by experts:

  • It offers a solution for power-hungry operations (high tonnage and/or long range), where batteries cannot reach.
  • Its use is emission-free and, in the case of green hydrogen, so is its generation.
  • It is a proven technology. The creation of an efficient logistics chain that facilitates its production in high volumes will allow it to be a competitive fuel.

Hydrogen as a zero-emission fuel for maritime transport is still a distant but very promising scenario, as demonstrated by projects such as the emission-free hydrogen ferry in Norled (Norway) or the electric ship Ulstein SX190.

Further research and innovation will be needed to find alternative fuels that are sustainable due to their low or zero emissions. The future of the maritime transport sector depends on its decarbonisation so that its development does not become a burden on climate objectives.