The key to tackling climate change: Electrify shipping

If we do not drastically reduce our emissions – and tackle the climate crisis now – we are running out of time. Having productive conversations, taking impactful action, reversing the effects of climate change, all of it.

It’s a statement that most of us already know to be true, but few want to hear. Let alone say.

Climate change is the most pervasive problem we face, and it may be the most important obstacle in human history. Extreme drought, floods, ocean acidification and loss of biodiversity are not scenes written for a film set in a post-apocalyptic society. These are disasters we are already facing and at an alarming rate.

Keeping global temperatures within 1.5 or two degrees Celsius of pre-industrial levels means redirecting our attention to the hard-to-decline industries – the ones that need the most drastic, revolutionary change.

Shipping is one of the largest emitters of greenhouse gases, far surpassing aviation, agriculture, you name it. But as an industry, it presents historical challenges. Yes, its negative impact on the planet is virtually unparalleled, but it is also responsible for the highest levels of global trade.

Currently, around 11 billion tons of goods are transported by ship each year. Reducing shipping may reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but no one is saying that replacing it (eg aviation taking the mantle of global trade) will serve our planet better. Reduce trade and you reduce supply, not to mention the world economy.

Read also: How to navigate the investment opportunity in the climate technology sector

Suddenly we are presented with new but equally challenging considerations. The pieces of the puzzle may fit, but it does not make for an attractive picture.

The only correct answer? Change the image

If we are to reach net zero by our 2050 target, the shipping industry has no choice but to electrify its operations. More specifically, adopt advanced battery technology.

Electric cars and modes of transportation have been a hot topic for a while now. In October 2022, US President Joe Biden pledged to allocate US$2.8 billion in grants to projects expanding the production of batteries for electric vehicles. But the new advantages of battery-powered ships are taking the shipping industry by storm, and the market value is expected to grow exponentially.

The United Nations (UN) has listed a number of alternative energy sources as potential solutions – wind, solar, green hydrogen, geothermal energy, hydropower, ocean energy and bioenergy. There are pros and cons, pros and cons for each energy type (you only need to look at Lloyd’s List or The Economist to read more Op.Eds. about it), but each of these solutions has one common denominator: it needs energy storage systems for power.

From providing voltage and frequency balancing to providing black start continuity to assuming the role of dynamic first response force – these factors are all essential to electrifying marine vessels. Batteries not only power ships, but they are also an integral part of driving the marine industry into a net zero future. Now the demand for batteries is rapidly increasing as the benefits – environmental, cost, energy saving, etc. – become much more obvious.

So what’s standing in the way?

In a nutshell: infrastructure.

We started to see battery-powered vessels appear 12 years ago, but at that time their use would peak with short-haul and small to medium-sized ferries. A decade ago, shipowners were hesitant to implement energy storage systems due to factors such as space, weight, cost and infrastructure limitations.

One could argue that it is reductive, but infrastructure is the big player and the last word in battery-powered vessels that go the distance – figuratively and literally. But there are alternatives. Shift’s PWRSwäp is derived from the need to combat, first, the short-term costs of establishing the infrastructure we need, and second, the long-term uncertainty that is often an obstacle to technological progress.

PWRSwäp removes the roadblocks that come with buying a battery and investing in the infrastructure requirements. It is the first of its kind, a pay-as-you-go energy subscription service, which allows ships to use and pay only for the energy they need, and vessels can “trade” energy by exchanging used battery cells for charged cells. This technology enables vessels to switch seamlessly to hybrid or full electric. Importantly, it also ensures that the size and weight of the battery is a fraction of what a traditional energy storage system would be.

Win-win-win – and so on

As these conversations and talking points can be (and the reality of the technical struggles), it is just as important to address the concerns face to face. Not just the obvious commercial consideration, something we’re largely driven by at Shift, but things like safety standards.

Read also: Preference for green jobs is the “most exciting” climate technology development: Lightspeed

Battery fires are a prominent hazard in the shipping industry. The concern isn’t exactly helped by historical news of batteries going bad and their suppliers making the same mistakes over and over again. But lithium is extremely flammable, and fires can occur aboard vessels with marine batteries ignited by damage, overcharging or overheating.

To make matters worse, battery fires can be difficult to put out and can reignite days or even weeks later if not handled properly or without the right technology in place. The rules for safe storage and use of lithium-ion batteries and fire testing vary between countries and projects, meaning that there is very little impetus to create consistency and reliability in how we classify ‘safe’ ESS.

Safety and reliability were woven into the fabric of Shift from the beginning. Observing the same mistakes made by other manufacturers over the years only motivated our own extremely strict safety standards to increase. And with that, we created fireproof marine batteries. Our CellCool© system encloses each cell in its own coolant, which reverses a thermal runaway event in a cell or block of cells. This allows the batteries to operate at their optimum temperature without the risk of overheating or catching fire.

Prioritizing safety – and striving for the industry’s strictest regulations time and time again – supports decarbonisation. It emphasizes the well-being of crews, passengers, communities and the public and reinforces battery technology’s longevity and untapped potential in the climate crisis.

Our path to decarbonisation must be easy and accessible to business if we are to succeed. This technology is not a ‘five to ten years in the future’ idea; it is a tangible reality available today.

PWRSwäp’s capabilities are certainly unique, but its track is just as unique. The rapid deployment of battery technology that we see in the industry and interest from the market is something we are ready to support. At Shift, we build charging stations along shipping routes to make the transition to hybrid or full electric much more straightforward. Unlike refueling with diesel or using other fuel-powered propulsion systems, the process of installing, recharging and using the PWRSwäp is quick and simple.

Ultimately, achieving our climate goals will not be the result of one initiative, one policy, one company or one solution. At Shift, we constantly elevate our technology and focus on partnerships with industry innovators and visionary organizations. Proactively moving the needle on climate change.

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