The Newest Clean Shipping Technology is a Sail

The newest clean shipping technology is sails, but these high-tech devices aren’t made of fabric and ropes.
Reading Time: 4 minutes

The newest clean shipping technology is sails, but these high-tech devices aren’t made of fabric and ropes. Image WindWings.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

The newest clean shipping technology is sails, but these high-tech devices aren’t made of fabric and ropes.

Carrying 90% of the world’s consumed goods, oceangoing cargo ships are a huge contributor to global climate change and air pollution. These massive vessels burn unrefined, highly polluting heavy fuel oil as they carry goods around the world, releasing 1.1 billion tons of carbon dioxide yearly. With pressure growing for huge polluters like shipping to clean up their acts, new technologies aim to harness wind power and slash those emissions. The WindWings technology created by UK-based BAR Technologies is one system that is already showing promising results.

WindWings consists of two giant wing-like vertical sails made of aluminum and composite polymers. Mounted on the deck of cargo ships, these modern “wings” can tower up to 37 meters tall. The strong and lightweight sails shift position to best catch the wind. By harnessing that free wind power as ships sail on routes around the world or to major ports, less energy from the engine is needed to push the vessel forward.

The WindWings setup also utilizes smart navigation software. Computers and artificial intelligence track wind speeds, directions, and ocean currents worldwide. Then, they chart the best routes and positions for the wind wings to get the maximum boost from wind along the way. This advanced system, combining wind propulsion and smart planning, aims to cut fuel usage and slash damaging emissions.

Early sea trials using WindWings have already shown impressive results. In 2022, an actual voyage from the UK to Africa and back achieved 30% fuel savings by using twin-wing wind propulsion for most of the 6,400-mile journey. Further computer simulations confirm similar savings could be reached on typical global shipping routes like Asia to North America.

For perspective, a 30% cut in heavy fuel oil burned would equate to taking nearly 35,000 gasoline-powered cars off the road. Considering more than 90,000 merchant ships cross the seas annually, wider adoption of the newest clean shipping technology like WindWings has huge implications. Even mid-size 20% emission reductions across the full fleet would prevent 190 million tons of CO2 yearly.

See also: The Ocean’s Potential to Combat Climate Change.

Beyond lowering pollution, switching to partially wind-powered shipping brings other meaningful benefits. Less money spent on pricey heavy fuel oil equals notable fuel cost savings for the shipping companies. Those financial motivations actually help speed the adoption of “greener” technologies. Firms looking for the newest clean shipping technology can better justify the still significant $3-10 million price tag to install WindWings.

Importantly, the innovative wing sails are also promising for use on common bulk carriers and container ships, not just custom-designed cargo ships. The modular WindWings only need some open deck space. Implementing this strategy across wider segments of the global fleet expands the sustainability impact even more.

In 2021, dozens of firms signed on to Getting to Zero Coalition pledges. The companies vowed to hit ambitious climate targets like making ocean trade carbon neutral by 2050. Deploying the newest clean shipping technology solutions will be vital for realistically reaching those aggressive industry milestones.

Unfortunately, revolutionary emission-slashing technologies and the newest clean shipping technology won’t just instantly appear across all 90,000+ large ships plying global seas. Challenges still stand in the way before wind-assisted propulsion can truly transform international shipping.

First and foremost are cost and financing obstacles. Buying and installing multi-million dollar WingWings on even a mid-size cargo vessel isn’t cheap. And most ships operate on narrow profit margins. Upfront funding generally requires outside incentives or regulations forcing the issue.

Retraining crews also takes time and resources when adding such complex new systems. Ship owners rightly worry about disruptions to smooth operations, too. Crews require extensive practice with the wind wings and computers guiding routes for peak efficiency.

Maintaining speed and reliable delivery schedules also balances against emission goals. Harnessing inconsistent wind power by nature comes with tradeoffs to travel times. Companies and customers prioritize fast, predictable transit. Achieving all those competing interests keeps adoption incremental rather than instant.

Regulatory action could help overcome hurdles slowing WindWings and other types of newest clean shipping technology. Establishing “carbon taxes” on dirty ship fuel sources makes pollution more costly, incentivizing cleaner energy instead. Subsidies helping cover millions in equipment costs also allow more companies to afford to install emissions-cutting systems sooner. Granting sustainability certification to green solution adopters has also worked to accelerate change in the challenging maritime sector.

With potential 30% emission savings per vessel, broader implementation of wind harnessing and route optimizing systems could truly make ocean shipping more sustainable. If matching routes to wind patterns and deploying fuel-saving wings across more of the massively polluting global cargo fleet also helps companies meet ambitious climate goals, accelerated adoption seems likely. Through further trials and smarter policies, the scales may start to tip toward innovative solutions like WindWings steadily transforming cargo shipping into a much cleaner machine gliding over the seas. The newest clean shipping technology is a sail, and WindWings seems to make a lot of sense.

Ultimately, though, the problem of ocean cargo emissions is one of overconsumption. The cheap-price-low-quality model of global trade is unsustainable. Nothing is really ever free. We either pay now or pay later. In this case, buying locally sourced and manufactured goods might be the only way to fully impact the emissions from shipping. In the near future, the thought of shipping raw materials across the ocean only to have them return as cheap, unserviceable finished goods might seem as crazy as it sounds when I type it out. 

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