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A Return to Sailing Ships? Wingsail Technology Could Help Decarbonize Shipping

  • Wingsails could play a role in reducing fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions in the shipping industry
  • Autonomous system would take advantage of the wind and could be furled when not in use
  • Challenges include potential perception of risk and disconnect between who would pay for the technology and who would benefit from lower fuel costs

As the shipping industry faces pressure to cut fuel use both to reduce its expenses and bring down its greenhouse gas emissions, some companies are proposing a return – in part – to sail. By incorporating wingsail technology onto larger vessels, they propose, shipping companies could realize a sustainable way to supplement their propulsion systems.

Wingsails consist of a rib structure and outer skin mounted on a telescoping mast. Each sail is rotatable and autonomously controlled to take advantage of favorable winds. Bound4blue, which is has tested wingsail prototypes and plans to proceed with installation on two cargo ships and a fishing vessel, estimates that the system could reduce both fuel costs and emissions by 30 percent, and that the savings could offset the installation cost within five years.

The savings are comparable to that realized by the installation of wingsails on a Japanese cargo ship, though this technology was later abandoned when ships became too large for the sails (Bound4blue says the sails take up minimal deck space and have no effect on cargo capacity). Other companies have also been experimenting with wingsails, with the French company CNIM combining them with hydrogen power to create a zero-emission autonomous vessel.

The International Maritime Organization has set a target of halving the 2008 emissions levels of global shipping by 2050. Investors may be wary of funding wingsails at the outset, though they could embrace it more as emissions regulations become stricter and the systems are more widely implemented.

Another challenge is the disconnect between the ship owner who would be responsible for installing the technology and the charterer, who pays for the fuel and thus would receive the benefit of reduced expenses. This diminished incentive has contributed to the slow implementation of SkySails technology, which debuted more than a decade ago and involve large kites that help reduce ships’ fuel usage.

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