Putting a harness on ocean winds, a German shipping company plans to unfurl a giant high-tech kite over a cargo ship next year to boost the vessel's propulsion and to conserve fuel.
BREMEN, Germany Putting a harness on ocean winds, a German shipping company plans to unfurl a giant high-tech kite over a cargo ship next year to boost the vessel's propulsion and to conserve fuel.
The "SkySail", a 160 square-metre (191 square-yard) kite tethered to a mast, has successfully undergone years of trial runs and Bremen shipowner Beluga Shipping believes it will help its vessels cut fuel use by 15 to 20 percent.
The "MV Beluga SkySails", now being built and fitted with a paraglider-shaped sail and a "smart" central steerage unit, will make its maiden voyage in early 2007.
"I got the idea on a sail boat a few years ago," Stephan Wrage, inventor and founder of SkySails GmbH & Co. KG, told Reuters. "I love flying kites and found sailing rather slow. I thought the enormous power in kites could somehow be utilised."
The technology he has developed is a throwback to an earlier age of maritime travel when ships relied solely on wind. But it also addresses a key concern of the modern age: climate change.
Backers of "SkySail" call it a "green" project -- by cutting fuel use it could help reduce emissions of the greenhouse gases blamed for global warming.
Wrage, 34, said that depending on the vessel and the winds, fuel costs for shippers could be cut by more than $1,000 a day.
After four years of successful tests, it is anything but a pie-in-the-sky project.
The inventor first tested a prototype of the SkySail on a 3.5 metre (11.5-foot) boat, then gradually increased the size of the craft before testing it last year on a 55-metre (180-foot) vessel, the "Beaufort".
MAKING MONEY WITH ECOLOGY
SkySail's price tag -- at between 500,000 euros and 2.5 million euros ($660,000 - $3.3 million) -- along with doubts it will deliver promised savings, and its reliance on fickle ocean winds could limit demand at first.
Wrage said ships will initially need to carry an engineer to operate the sail, which is about as big as a medium-sized passenger jet.
"It's going to save money in the long run and it's environmentally friendly," said Verena Frank, project manager at Beluga, a shipping firm with 40 vessels.
"We've integrated the system into our new ship from the start of construction but ships can also be retro-fitted," she said in an interview in this windswept northern port city with a rich seafaring tradition dating back to the 8th century.
"Ours will be the first commercial use in cargo shipping," Frank said. "There will be some teething pains," she added.
SkySails can use powerful offshore winds between 100 and 300 metres above the surface with the help of the high-tech control pod, but they would be useless with head-on winds and would not benefit ships travelling above 16 knots.
The sails are unlikely to make much of an immediate impact on the overall fuel and environment problems facing shippers. Shipping carries more than 90 percent of the world's traded goods. There are 30,000 merchant ships carrying everything from oil, gas, coal, and grains to electronic goods.
Wrage has a staff of 33 and in 2007 expects to equip three more ships with the SkySail. He projects 1,500 vessels will have the system by 2015, when he reckons he will have 800 employees.
"It was important for me to prove that you can make money working hand-in-hand with nature and not against it," he said.
"I think there could be a lot more linking of ecology and economy."
Beluga Chief Executive Niels Stolberg said market forces were the main reason he decided to enter a partnership with "SkySails" in 2002. He placed the first order almost a year ago.
He expects SkySails to cut the $7,500 daily fuel costs of his cargo ship by up to $1,500. And he said the positive impact on the environment was a welcome dividend.
"You've got to look at new ideas to cope with developments in oil prices," Stolberg said, adding it was not possible to pass along such steep fuel prices to customers.
If SkySails works as expected, he plans to add the system one vessel at a time.
"When energy prices double in such a short time, you've got to innovate. We won't be able to switch the engines off. But we're confident we can reduce fuel usage -- and cut emissions."
He said his fuel prices have more than doubled from about $150 per tonne in 2004 to between $300 and $400 per tonne this year and he fears prices may soon rise to $450. Prices have, however, retreated somewhat in recent months.
"We can't sit back and ignore the market pressures and wait until fuel hits $500," said Stolberg, whose nine-year-old firm ships everything from giant turbine engines to locomotives for customers including Siemens and General Electric.
On top of that, European Union restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions threaten penalties for those who fail to act to curb them, and the heavy fuels that ships use are deemed especially dirty.
"From the European Union point of view, you will have restrictions with CO2 emissions and they'll fine you," said Frank. "You've got to find ways to avoid that. As restrictions are coming, every shipper must rethink their strategy."
(Additional reporting by Stefano Ambrogi in London)