Biofuels look set to become the most viable option for widespread adoption as a bunker fuel for commercial shipping. Hydrotreated vegetables, blend-in combustibles and biomethanol are already being used as drop-in power on some ships, with the potential to replace fossil fuels.
The International Maritime Organisation (IMO) has highlighted 2030 and 2050 as key milestones for carbon emission reductions. International shipping is looking to reduce its carbon emissions by an average of at least 40% by 2030, pursuing efforts towards 70% by 2050, compared to 2008 levels.
The spotlight is on biofuels as a potential solution. And yet, their use in maritime is still on a small scale. The switch to alternative energy requires a multi-faceted approach, including partnering with alternative fuel suppliers to facilitate the adoption of sustainable fuels.
"There are great opportunities for those eager to translate decarbonisation objectives into reality," says Martyn McMahon, Global Director of GAC Bunker Fuels, the marine fuel and lubricant procurement arm of shipping, logistics and marine services provider GAC Group. "The industry needs widespread investment in newer, readily available alternative energy sources. Instead of just nominally patching the gaps, we need to shift the source of bunker fuels to something greener and cleaner."
Focus on lower carbon
To help ship owners and operators improve emissions performance, GAC Bunker Fuels has been expanding its supply network of traditional and alternative fuels, focusing on those with a lower carbon output, such as LNG, biofuels, ammonia and methanol. The Group’s global reach includes hubs at strategic bunkering locations and forms part of its network of more than 300 offices in over 50 countries.
"We are always looking for new ways to expand alternative fuel service options in more regions,” says Martyn. “Last year, we opened an office in Westport, Connecticut, to support global customers operating at American ports on their decarbonisation journeys.”
The company also signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Dubai-based Neutral Fuels to market marine gasoil (MGO) biodiesel blends across the Middle East and India, and to expand supply points throughout the Middle East and Africa.
The United Kingdom and Ireland are among the countries seeing a rise in the popularity of biofuels. To meet growing demand, Green Biofuels Limited UK has appointed GAC Ireland to operate and maintain their Cork Terminal – the first in the country dedicated to clean fuels. The first lifting of 38,000 litres of Gd⁺ fuel made from renewable feedstocks which dramatically reduces harmful emissions by up to 90% was completed in April under the eagle eye of Kenneth Long, GAC Ireland’s Cork Terminal Manager.
In Gibraltar, GAC works with local providers to coordinate the supply of biofuels to vessels calling at the port.
The demand-availability gap
However, with the plethora of simultaneous supply chain disruptions, access to raw materials is becoming increasingly important for upscaling biofuel production. The bunker industry is competing with rising demand for biomass, biowaste and recycled vegetable oils across from other sectors.
“There is a growing gap between demand and availability of alternative fuelling solutions worldwide which the industry must address,” says Martyn. “It is crucial that alternative fuels and support for bunkering solutions are available wherever shipping goes. After all, ensuring cleaner transportation is key to lowering supply chain emissions.”
Scaling barriers to transition
The complexity of the emerging energy landscape and evolving regulations has been a key reason for the hesitancy in investing in biofuels alongside other factors such as the impact of the Ukraine-Russia war on global markets and Covid-related supply chain shutdowns. There is also debate over whether biofuels are really a green option as some are produced on cleared lands that could otherwise grow food, grass and trees and support ecosystems.
Critically, biofuels are significantly more expensive than traditional bunkering solutions, with prices 70%-130% more than fossil fuels, according to research from Brussels-based NGO Transport & Environment.
"This applies to global disparity too,” notes Martyn. “For example, compared to other ports, major developed ports like Fujairah, Singapore and Rotterdam might be more readily able to provide capacity and infrastructure to service biofuels.
Switching to a whole new form of low-carbon energy on an industrial scale will inevitably require modifications to fuel infrastructure, both onboard vessels and at ports. Investment is needed to supply liquid biofuels to refuelling stations, starting with feedstock production. The energy, material and capital inputs required vary considerably and are not necessarily compatible with existing processes supporting traditional bunker fuels. The entire lifecycle of biofuels may need a complete revamp.
“There are significant barriers to overcome before we reach widespread adoption of biofuels in maritime,” says Martyn. “But whatever the future fuelling solutions we develop and adopt as an industry will come with costs and trade-offs. The price of continuing to burn fossil fuels and ignoring emissions targets will be far greater.”
The GAC Group has been working alongside like-minded industry partners through initiatives including the Global Maritime Forum’s Getting to Zero Coalition. The alliance of more than 140 companies from the maritime, energy, infrastructure and finance sectors aims to accelerate the decarbonisation of shipping by developing and deploying zero emission vessels by 2030.
A holistic approach
The impediments to developing and supplying alternative energy sources, including costs, will eventually be overcome. Wind energy has already demonstrated how green power can become competitive with the cost of traditional combustion sources.
“The industry is experiencing a massive shake-up, but it will stabilise eventually. Everyone is looking to decarbonise, and industry collaboration is vital to that effort. Luckily, we have enough tools to achieve these goals, one of which is biofuels,” says Martyn.
“However, biofuels alone will not be enough to decarbonise global emissions. The future will inevitably involve a mix of solutions with multiple energy transitions moving at different paces. Investment and infrastructural support will require concerted effort from all supply chain stakeholders from regulators, shipowners, service providers, suppliers to traders.”
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