The electric revolution is coming to freighters and cruise ships

Go with the floes.
Go with the floes.
Image: Courtesy Hurtigruten
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

One of the most ancient forms of transportation is joining the 21st century.

Cruise ship, ferry, and cargo ship-builders are developing hybrid and electric ships to reduce reliance on fuels like diesel and heavy fuel oil that power most large vessels. The pollution left in their wake has been tied to premature deaths and health problems in some of the world’s busiest ports.

But builders and operators are starting to turn to electric and hybrid ships as an alternative. Norwegian cruise line Hurtigruten is investing in ships with a hybrid engine developed by Rolls Royce that aim to offer quieter sailing through tour routes in the Arctic and Antarctic. The first will be available in 2018, Hurtigruten says, and will be equipped with an auxiliary battery-powered engine that could allow for near-silent sailing for up to 30 minutes. (All the better to enjoy the sounds of the apocalypse as the big ice cracks.) The other ship, to be delivered later, could cruise for longer periods of time.

Finnish electrical propulsion firm Visedo this year debuted an electric motor on a ferry serving 8 million passengers a year on a route from the Taiwanese port city of Kaohsiung to the nearby island of Cijin. To cut back on diesel-fuel consumption, the ferry runs on a lithium iron phosphate battery. Visedo also helped turn Finland’s oldest ferry into an all-electric vessel earlier this year. The company is now working on hybrid patrol boats for Estonia.

The biggest ecological challenge comes in commercial shipping. About 90% of world trade is transported by sea, according to the United Nations. Ocean freighters are often fueled with thick, high-sulfur and highly-contaminating fuel.

International shipping companies need to make drastic cuts to their emissions, a European Parliament report (pdf) warned in 2015. The industry will contribute about 2% of global greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 and its share could reach close to 17% by 2050, according to the report.

Despite the challenges of changing the power sources for these behemoths, some companies are giving it a try. In May, Norwegian fertilizer company Yara International announced it was developing a self-driving “zero-emissions,” completely electric ship that could start operating by 2018, though with humans at the helm at first.

The ship is not only meant to be cleaner because of how its powered—it is meant to replace 40,000 diesel truck trips a year. Still, Yara is an early mover. It will be years before cargo is hauled across our oceans on fully electric vehicles, and as shipping volumes rise worldwide, a change will be needed sooner than later.