Birkenhead to Belfast ferry operator Stena Line is aiming to have an electric vessel in service by 2030 in a move that would be a game-changer for the maritime sector. Tony McDonough reports
Fully electric and hybrid cars are now a common sight on our roads but the electrification of larger forms of transport such as ships and aircraft represents a significant challenge.
Low cost airline easyJet, one of the biggest carriers at Liverpool John Lennon Airport, is aiming to have an all-electric short-haul passenger plane operating on its European route network by 2030.
And now Stena Line, also a major presence on the River Mersey, has also made the pledge to be using an all-electric ferry in commercial service in the same year. But it admits it won’t be easy.
Decarbonisation is one of the key aims of the Government’s Maritime 2050 project, which has set out some key targets for the maritime sector over the coming decades. Electric ships could have huge implications for Liverpool city region’s £4bn maritime sector.
Thousands of vessels sail in and out of the Mersey every year and that is set to increase with the ongoing expansion of the Port of Liverpool which already accommodates some of the world’s biggest container vessels. Before the pandemic, Liverpool cruise terminal was also handling more than 100 ships a year.
The Stanlow Oil refinery, on the Manchester Ship Canal, alone accounts for more than 700 tankers, including 140 supertankers, coming in and out of the River Mersey every year. Vessels of many different sizes are coming into the Mersey every day from all over the world.
Marine fuel, especially the bunker fuel used by ocean-going vessels, is pretty toxic stuff. It is a tar-like sludge that contains 3,500 times more sulphur than the diesel used for cars. It is also relatively cheap and accounts for 13% of all annual global oxide emissions.
Industry body Mersey Maritime has pledged to be at the forefront of the decarbonisation of the maritime sector. Sustainability will be a major focus of the £23m Maritime Knowledge Hub, to be built at Wirral Waters.Sweden-based Stena is one of the most recognisable names on the Mersey.
Stena Embla and her sister ship, Stena Edda, make up to two round trips a day between the Twelve Quays terminal in Birkenhead and Belfast. Both vessels are part of Stena’s new E-Flexer ferry fleet and have only arrived on the Mersey in the past 12 months. They offer extra capacity and better fuel efficiency.
Stena is also introducing artificial intelligence onto all its vessels. These ‘AI captains’ will find the most efficient routes across the water and minimise fuel consumption. However, a vessel that doesn’t use marine fuel at all, and instead is powered by an electric battery, would be a game-changer for the marine sector.
But Stena admits the challenge of a commercial electric ferry by 2030 will not be an easy one.According to Patrik Almqvist, head of network and fleet at Stena Line, there are several reasons why the shipping industry has lagged behind other transport areas in the field of electromobility.
He explained: “For large ferries, batteries are a considerable challenge. It takes a huge amount of energy to move a ship across the water, which of course affects the bulk of batteries needed. Another large obstacle is how to charge these batteries when in port. In simpler terms: the challenge grows with the size of the transport.”
But Stena is undaunted by this challenge and pledges that Stena Elektra, the fully electric ferry, will operate between Stena Line’s homeport in Gothenburg and Frederikshavn, by 2030. The target is absolute. But the map that will get them there remains uncharted.
The starting point for Stena Elektra was one of Stena Teknik’s pilot projects that explored a future-proof concept. The bold ideas presented caught traction. Mr Almqvist added: “When we saw the prototype, we were immediately intrigued.
“Here was both an opportunity to push technological boundaries and the commercial viability to turn it into reality. In order to reduce our emissions, we have already created ground-breaking methanol and battery-hybrid vessels. Stena Elektra represents the next step in this evolution. This will be an important part of our future.
”The vessel, which will operate the route between the two Nordic ports in nine years, might have sprung from conceptual ideas, but it will be a completely different entity. By then the 215-metre-long ferry will have a capacity of 3,100 lane metres, 160 trucks or 700 cars, and up to 1,500 passengers.
Charging the ship in port will be a big challenge. In order for a ferry of Stena Elektra’s proportions to traverse from Göteborg to Frederikshavn, 30 MWh of energy is required. This corresponds to the daily electricity consumption of approximately 850 households. Few ports have the infrastructure required to meet this demand, especially when the ship is only docked for 60 to 90 minutes.
For Stena Line, it is not yet certain if battery drive is the only way to go. However, it is not the energy source itself that is the goal, rather getting rid of emissions. By 2030 Stena Line aims to reduce its total CO2 emissions by 30%, and in 2050 the ferry company aims for zero emissions.
“We are going to launch a completely fossil-free ship. That is our mission. Exactly what energy sources will be used remains to be seen. But we have to challenge ourselves, and we must start running – now,” Patrik Almqvist added.
In the end, Stena Elektra might not be fully electric – but it will be fully fossil-free. To reach that goal, questions must get answered and obstacles overcome. Energy source, infrastructure and whether policy makers are up for the task.
The company insists Stena Elektra won’t be a one-off, it will be a flexible modular concept used as a blueprint for many vessels to come. Within a year, an updated concept design of the ferry will be revealed, and by 2025, the first order can be placed, paving the way for the launch in 2030.
Mr Almqvist said: “This is an important signal that we send both to the decision-makers and the industry. If we really want to achieve our climate goals, we must carry out these kinds of projects.
“We all agree that it is time to make a change. But it is imperative that decision-makers provide the conditions needed for us to make it happen.”