Island ferry service set for environmental breakthrough

Ship fuelled by green energy sets standard for maritime industry’s climate change challenge

The Shapinsay island ferry that is set to become the first zero-emissions ferry in the world. David Hibbert.
The Shapinsay island ferry that is set to become the first zero-emissions ferry in the world. David Hibbert.

Little has changed on the windswept Scottish island of Shapinsay in the three decades that David Swannie has crewed the car ferry that serves its 300-strong population. But his workplace is at the vanguard of an industrial revolution.

Mr Swannie, 61, works in the engine room of a ferry service which is set to be overhauled to become the world’s first ‘zero emissions’ ship using renewable energy culled from the unique environment of the Orkney Islands.

Scientists, engineers and the renewables industry are collaborating to use surplus power created from wind and wave projects in the 70-island archipelago off the northern tip of Scotland to fuel the new ferry.

The developers behind the project believe that the new ship – which is slated to be built and operating 2021 – will be a key landmark in the effort to cut climate change gases in a sector that is responsible for 80 per cent of global trade. Ship owners agreed last year to reduce the sector’s greenhouse gas emissions by at least 50 per cent by 2050.

Shipping accounts for about two per cent of global carbon emissions but overwhelmingly uses harmful heavy oils.

The sharp reduction targets in greenhouse gases will probably require a shift towards alternatively energy forms, say experts. Other potential options include using improved battery technology and potentially nuclear power.

“It’s a step into the real world of commercial shipping from boats” where hydrogen has been tested on a smaller scale, said Dr Martin Smith of the University of St Andrews and one of the architects of the project, HySeas III.

The Shapinsay experiment is unique as it uses excess green energy from local sources to create clean energy for the ship. For what the group of islands has in abundance - in addition to sea birds – is natural power.

Shapinsay has its own community wind turbine while test sites to harness tide and wave energy are run by the European Marine Energy Centre (EMEC) in Orkney.

The problem is what to do with it all. The islands create some 120 per cent of their renewable energy needs but limited connections with the mainland UK means that the excess cannot be exported and would be wasted.

And the problems with the energy infrastructure and low wages on the islands means that Orkney has some of the highest levels of fuel poverty in the UK – defined as spending more than ten per cent of income on energy needs, said island officials.

To create more value, the excess energy is siphoned to a plant where hydrogen is created and stored for use as a fuel. It will be used to heat a local school on the six-mile long island of Shapinsay and to fuel the refitted ferry without any negative impact on the environment. The only by-product from using hydrogen as a fuel is water.

The current ship is being fitted with a hybrid version of the system later this year before a specially-built vessel goes fully hydrogen in 2021.

The system has already been employed on buses, but Dr Smith said the Shapinsay ferry will be the first time that it has been used on a sea-going vessel of any size.

The ferry makes 12 crossings a day, making the 25-minute journey between the traditional farming community and Orkney’s largest of Kirkwall. It can carry a couple of lorries, cars and several hundred passengers, he said.

The challenge will be to scale up the project for use on ocean-going vessels. The hydrogen takes up considerable room for storage – which could lead to larger ships being built in the future to make up for the loss of storage space.

“It’s one thing that goes back and forth over short distances… when you go across the Atlantic or the Gulf that’s totally different,” said Dr Smith.

“That’s what I see as the big problem: we need much better ways of storing it in volume. This is the first step. There might be solutions that we can’t think of today but what they look like now is not clear.

“We won’t get investment and buying into this until we can show that it works on a shorter run.”

Hydrogen also poses fire hazards and Mr Swannie and his fellow crew members have received extra training in Glasgow to safely operate the hybrid model.

“They’ve spent a lot of money on it, so I hope it works,” he said.

Updated: September 16, 2019 02:57 PM


Editor's Picks
Sign up to:

* Please select one

Most Read