Shippers “call the shots” as to where container carriers send their ships, said Anil Vitarana, president of United Arab Agencies, the agent for United Arab Shipping Co. (UASC) in the United States.
But carriers also depend on ports to have the proper infrastructure, he noted during a panel discussion at Port Industry Day in New Jersey in late October.
He praised the decision to raise the Bayonne Bridge, so that bigger containerships will be able to pass beneath it, but also said he’d like to see New York someday offer carriers the ability to fuel their ships with liquefied natural gas (LNG).
UASC made history in August when it ordered five ships that will not only have the capacity to carry 18,800 TEUs — making them the biggest containerships ever ordered, larger even than the Maersk “Triple E” ships, but also have the ability to be fueled by LNG or diesel fuel.
Those ships will presumably be operated in an Asia-Europe trade lane, but Vitarana said globally most ports don’t yet have the infrastructure to bunker with LNG. He hopes that more will be by the time the carrier’s new ships are delivered.
Vitarana pointed out that fuel is now 60 percent of the cost of operating containerships — LNG offers the potential to be not only less expensive than bunker fuel but also reduces sulfur oxides and other pollutants, and meet clean air standards as more emission control areas are added and strict caps on emissions are rolled out globally.
There is another motivation for UASC — one of the carrier’s owners is Qatar, a large producer of natural gas.
Speaking a few days earlier at the Second Annual SHIPPINGInsight Fleet Optimization Conference in Stamford, Conn., Peter Keller, president of Sea Star Line, talked about plans by both his carrier and its sister company, Totem Ocean Trailer Express, to use LNG to power their ships.
Totem Ocean, which operates a roll-on/roll-off service between Tacoma, Wash., and Anchorage, Alaska, will re-engine its two 10-year-old “Orca class” ships with new diesel electric engines that will be capable of using LNG or bunker fuel.
Doing such a conversion turned out to be more difficult than the company anticipated. Keller said the company originally hoped to modify the existing engines on the ships, but after two years of discussion with the original equipment manufacturer, was unable to obtain a conversion kit. Keller noted he encountered similar difficulties when trying to get dray trucks that operated in Southern California modified to burn LNG.
The work to re-power the Totem Ocean ships will be done at the General Dynamics NASSCO shipyard in San Diego, which will also build two new ships for Sea Star.
Steel for Sea Star’s two new “Marlin class” ships for the mainland-to-Puerto Rico trade will be cut in February and the keel will be put down in July, with the second ship following in December, he said.
Those engines will also be dual-fueled, but Keller is confident they will be able to use LNG from the start. Unlike the Orca class ships with their four diesel electrics, the Marlin ships will have a single low-speed MAN diesel engine made by Doosan in South Korea that will be dual-fuel capable.
A major motivation for using LNG is the ECAs. The Totem Ocean ships operate 100 percent of the time in the North America ECA and the Sea Star ships spend 30-40 percent of their time within the area today. In January, an ECA around Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands goes into effect.
Technology and low-sulfur bunker fuel can help carriers comply with ECA regulations, but Keller said “when you go to LNG you are bypassing a lot of the intermediate steps and going straight to the heart of the problem,” adding that burning LNG will virtually eliminate particulate matter and dramatically reduce sulfur oxides, nitrogen oxides and carbon dioxide.
He suggested transatlantic carriers may want to look at LNG, since they may spend 40-50 percent of their total trip time within the North American or European ECAs.
To reduce emissions, companies may also do nothing more than operate their ships with low-sulfur bunker fuel. Low-sulfur fuel sells at a premium today, and while Keller doesn’t know where prices are headed, he felt “there is no question there are going to be major issues as we consider prices going forward.”
Some cruise lines plan to install scrubbers on their ships to reduce pollution, and Keller said they may be attractive to operators of tramp vessels or ships on long voyages outside of ECAs — for example across the Pacific.
But Totem Ocean and Sea Star felt LNG was their best choice for their ships because they make regular voyages to a small number of ports, do not need to carry large quantities of LNG, and probably will have an easier time developing a supply of fuel.
The LNG on the Sea Star and Totem Ocean ships will be stored above deck in large tanks at the stern of the vessel, behind the house. Keller noted, to the relief of the crew, there will be room above the tanks for Sea Star to carry specially built containers for carrying live cattle, which also produce gas.
Keller said both Sea Star and Totem Ocean have been working with regulators and other companies to make sure there will be bunkering facilities both in Jacksonville, Fla., and Tacoma, respectively.
The ships may be fueled by trucks or barges initially, but he expects within two to four years there will be liquefaction facilities adjacent to waterways in both Jacksonville and Tacoma. Good news for carriers: “Once you build them, you will actually be able to fuel them,” he said.