fuel cells

PowerCell: Green hydrogen via fuel cells to play major role in maritime decarbonization

Marine hydrogen fuel cells have emerged as one of the zero-emission solutions that is fast maturing. With the commerciality improving, their popularity is yet to grow amid the global fight to decarbonize shipping.

Fuels cells — which work like batteries but do not need recharging — convert the chemical energy of fuels into electrical and thermal energy. The clean energy then powers vessels’ propulsion systems. The electrochemical process is greenhouse gas (GHG) emission-free in the case of hydrogen as fuel.

To date, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) has focused many of its GHG regulations on the bigger ships in the merchant fleet that make up 85% of the industry’s carbon footprint but it is the other 15% that we are technologically ready to decarbonize now. It is only a matter of time before regulators turn their attention to these quick wins, according to Swedish hydrogen fuel cell provider PowerCell.

Some regulations such as EU ETS are already improving the commercial rationale for shipowners to adopt zero- or low-emission propulsion. One sector that is part of ‘the 15%’ is the roll-on/roll-off passenger (RoPax) ferry market. The time is right for this sector to modernize and decarbonize.

Offshore Energy spoke with Johan Burgren, Business Manager Marine at PowerCell, to learn more about the current market environment and the potential of marine fuel cell technology.

  • OE: What should be the solution for the European aging ferry fleet? Retrofits or scrapyard?

Burgren: The European RoPax ferry fleet has currently an average age of 38 years old, according to an analysis by PowerCell Group conducted for its HOPE ‘Hydrogen fuel cells solutions in Nordic shipping’ report. This age profile means there is a significant need for fleet renewal or retrofits to enhance the efficiency and extend the lifespan of existing vessels.

fuel cells
Johan Burgren. Courtesy of PowerCell

Analysis from DNV of EU MRV data revealed that a large portion of the current RoPax fleet will already have challenges meeting International Maritime Organization (IMO) Carbon Intensity Indicator (CII) requirements within the next two to five years – 47% have CII ratings of D and E. This is not only the case for old vessels, but also ships that are already ten years old.

The result of this older age profile and poor environmental performance is a major opportunity for introducing sustainable ships. The fleet can either be renewed with new vessels featuring renewable propulsion technologies or existing vessels can be retrofitted with new technologies, including fuel cells.

Fuel cell-powered main engines would be suitable for newbuilds and would form a fundamental part of the vessel design. Fuel cells can offer zero-emission main propulsion on a full lifecycle (well-to-wake) basis when using green fuels such as green hydrogen (derived from renewable electricity).

If shipowners are aiming to improve the fuel efficiency of their existing vessels, then retrofitting fuel cells to support, for example, an internal combustion engine is an option. Fuel cells can power auxiliary engines, supporting port operations, or the primary engines when operating at peak loads.

  • OE: How do you make the case for the maritime industry to adopt hydrogen as a decarbonization solution over as production of green hydrogen has received a lot of backlash due to the amount of renewable electricity it needs to be produced? A lot of analysts claim that the better use of renewable power would be to directly transfer it to the grid and electrify ships. What is your opinion on that?

Burgren: It is an inconvenient truth of the global energy transition that we still require major progress to be made on scaling renewable energy supplies. However, we must also remember that fuel cells make much more efficient use of scarce green (renewable) fuels than simply burning them for propulsion.

It is also important to note that PowerCell’s fuel cells are fuel agnostic. They can be powered by hydrogen, pure or reformed, and produce electricity and heat with no emissions other than water. The system can also handle all other types of e-fuels when connected with reformer technology. As the stacks and systems are compact, modular and scalable, they are easily adjusted to multiple applications, including ‘hard to abate’ sectors like marine and aviation.

Hydrogen makes sense when there is a lack of energy and grid infrastructure in a specific location. You can store a large amount of energy in a relatively small space, and the gas is relatively simple to move.

  • OE: What role do you see hydrogen playing in the future of the maritime industry’s decarbonization efforts? Are there upcoming projects, innovations, or policy changes that might further accelerate the adoption of hydrogen in maritime transportation?

Burgren: We expect green hydrogen via fuel cells to play a major role in the maritime industry’s decarbonisation as a true zero-emission solution. Fuel cells are ready and available today to take on the heavy lifting of decarbonisation as part of the phased transition away from fossil fuel. There is a new generation of marine-specific, powerful cells already here to tackle a major source of transport emissions.

PowerCell already has projects underway in the Norwegian ferry market. In March 2023, we signed an agreement to deliver hydrogen fuel cells to the Vest fjord connection – two ships operating on Norway’s longest ferry route. In Norway alone, there are roughly 800 ferry lines and ferries are a segment where we can expect continued significant interest in hydrogen-electric solutions.

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The ferries, which will predominantly be powered by green hydrogen, are expected to reduce their combined CO2 emissions by 26,500 tonnes per year, which is equivalent to the CO2 emissions from 13,000 diesel cars per year being removed from the roads. This agreement is testament to the acceleration of the transition to electrification and emission-free energy from supranational initiatives such as the EU’s Green Deal and the large-scale investments to reach the Paris Agreement.

Initiatives such as the EU Green Deal have already had a profound effect on the types of energy used to power ferries and other short sea vessels. The IMO’s CII and EEXI also offer cause for further investment in lower carbon vessels. Carbon pricing, such as the EU ETS (European Union Emissions Trading System), will be essential to meet the speed of change that the marine market’s decarbonisation progress requires.

It is also key to look beyond regulations to other decarbonisation drivers, including customer pressure. Picture this, it’s 2035 and revenue-generating passengers have switched to more sustainable electric or hydrogen fuel cell cars. Will they really accept a diesel-powered CO2-spewing ferry?

OE: In terms of cost-effectiveness, how does the use of marine hydrogen fuel cells compare to alternative clean technologies? Are there economic factors that make hydrogen a compelling choice for the maritime industry?

Burgren: Fuel cells do still have a high capital expenditure (CAPEX) however this has improved significantly with economies of learning, scope, and scale. It’s also important to expand the cost equation to include operating expenditure (OPEX) and analyse the total cost of ownership. Fuel tends to be a ship operator’s highest expense, and this will be especially true of costly alternative green e-fuels. Therefore, any technology that can improve green fuel efficiency – such as fuel cells – is increasingly valuable.

It is also key to recognise the cost benefits of complying with the latest and future environmental regulations. The EU ETS, for example, is adding a progressive cost to CO2 emissions from commercial ships of 5,000 GT or more that call at EU ports. Initially, 40% of emissions are in scope, quickly ramping up to 70% for 2025 and to 100% for 2026 onwards. The EU is also expected to manage the supply of its emissions trading credits or emissions allowances (EUAs) increasing costs to polluters over time.

As regulations evolve and technology costs decrease, shipowners must constantly re-evaluate their decarbonisation options. Moreover, as the act of polluting becomes more costly, the payback period for zero-emission technology is shortened. Regulations are already changing this cost equation.

OE: What are the current challenges and outlook for the marine fuel cell market?

Burgren: Upfront costs remain a challenge in the fuel cell market, but costs are moving in the right direction, and all the decarbonisation drivers mentioned above are improving the business case for adopting fuel cells. As a zero-emission solution, the environmental case is as clear as ever. With a green value chain, hydrogen and fuel cells offer a zero GHG emission solution. That means they do not contribute to shipping’s CO2 emissions at all.

Overall, the outlook for marine fuel cells is very positive. It is important to remember that fuel cells are also versatile, and so they can be applied to various clean energy and power generation requirements in the maritime industry. For example, beyond ship propulsion, fuel cells can be used to provide ships at berth with flexible and sustainable shore power connections to avoid the use of polluting auxiliary engines in ports.