As global awareness of climate change has grown, so has the pressure on industries to reduce their carbon footprints. The shipping industry, responsible for about 2-3% of global greenhouse gas emissions, is no exception. As trade continues to globalize, shipping routes become ever busier, and the industry’s carbon output is projected to increase unless significant changes are made.
However, the shipping industry has not been idle in the face of this challenge. Alternative fuels are in various stages of development. There are other innovative methods that are being trialed and implemented to decrease carbon emissions, like . Among these methods, the reintroduction of sails to modern shipping is emerging as a promising solution.
The Renaissance of Sails
The concept of using sails for propulsion might seem antiquated in the era of fossil fuels and nuclear power. However, they see a resurgence as a sustainable, renewable means of powering cargo ships. Modern sailing technology has come a long way from the large, manually-operated cloth sails of yore. Today’s versions are often automated, using lightweight, durable materials and sophisticated aerodynamics.
Companies like Michelin have developed the WISAMO (Wind Sail and Marine) system, an inflatable wing sail that can be fitted onto merchant ships and pleasure crafts. Another notable example is the SeaWing by Airseas, an automated kite system that can reportedly reduce fuel usage by 20%. French ship designers Zéphyr & Borée are using yet another sailing technology based on technology from the aerospace industry.
Next to companies innovating sails as we know them, there are companies with a more traditional approach to using sails. One such company is Fairtransport, founded by three Dutch sailors. They’ve bought a partially sunk minesweeper and refurbished it as a cargo sailing boat. They now carry freight across the Atlantic and around Europe. The cost for shipping cargo this way is higher, so their clients are mainly purpose-driven companies, like organic food traders, that emphasize sustainability.
And then there are also companies designing new cargo vessels fully powered by wind, like Vela. Their newly designed Vela 1 will be a trimaran-type vessel that can transport the equivalent of 51 containers. The maiden voyage is planned for 2025, and the first regular line will run between France and the United States.
The Impact of Sails
These modern sails can provide significant fuel savings. The exact amount varies based on factors such as the ship’s route and size and the specific sail technology used. Still, 10-30% reductions are common, with some systems claiming to achieve even higher savings under optimal conditions.
Such reductions in fuel usage translate directly into reductions in carbon emissions. Moreover, the less fuel a ship uses, the less Sulphur and Nitrogen Oxides it emits. Furthermore, as well as reducing emissions, sails provide an economic advantage. The reduced fuel consumption leads to lower operating costs for shipping companies. Although the initial investment in sail technology can be substantial, the potential fuel savings mean that it can often pay for itself within a few years.
A Greener Horizon
As the shipping industry continues to innovate in the face of environmental challenges, the old becomes new with the re-emergence of sails. This time-tested technology, enhanced with modern materials and automation, is proving to be a promising solution in the industry’s quest to reduce carbon emissions.
The path to a sustainable future for the shipping industry will likely involve many strategies, from improved efficiency and alternative fuels to new propulsion methods like sails. But one thing is clear: the winds of change are blowing, and the industry is setting its course toward a greener horizon.