Study: Lower battery costs unlock potential to electrify big containerships

Improvements in batteries have unlocked the potential to electrify big containerships today on voyages of up to 5,000 km, a new study shows.

Illustration. Image Courtesy: Kees Torn on Flickr under CC BY-SA 2.0 license
Illustration. Image Courtesy: Kees Torn on Flickr under CC BY-SA 2.0 license

The study, entitled “Rapid battery cost declines accelerate the prospects of all-electric interregional container shipping” was published in the Nature Energy Journal on 18 July 2022.

It explores the economic and environmental benefits of direct electrification of containerships.

Specifically, the main findings of the study include:

  • Efficiency advantage: Electrification of container vessels is more economical (on voyages of up to 5,000 km) and 3-5-times more efficient than e-fuels (such as green hydrogen and ammonia).
  • Increasing availability: Over 40% of global containership traffic could be electrified cost-effectively with current technology within this decade.
  • Environmental benefits: Battery-electric container shipping could reduce CO2 emissions by 14% for US-based vessels and mitigate the health impacts of air pollution on coastal communities.

Using the best-available battery costs and energy densities, the authors — Jessica Kersey, Natalie D. Popovich and Amol A. Phadke — examined the technical outlook, economic feasibility and environmental impact of battery-electric containerships.

They defined two scenarios: first, a baseline scenario using today’s best-available battery costs, HFO costs, battery energy densities and renewable energy prices; and, second, a near-future scenario that tests the impacts of projected 2030 improvements in these variables.

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In contrast to most previous studies, the authors treat the volume repurposed to house the battery energy storage (BES) system as an opportunity cost instead of a fixed technical constraint. They specify eight containership size classes and model their energy needs, their CO2, NOx and SO2 emissions, and total cost of propulsion (TCP) across 13 major world trade routes—creating 104 unique scenarios of ship size and route length that can be compared with almost any containership operating today.

In the study, the researchers focus on battery-electric containerships and briefly explore the implications of their results for electrifying other ship types.

The highly efficient and economical zero-emission solution for container shipping appears to be available today, much earlier than previously thought possible. Fleetzero, a New Orleans-based start-up is working to develop a fleet of smaller, more efficient, electric-powered ships to help decarbonise the shipping industry that is responsible for about 3% of all carbon emissions worldwide.

The cargo ships are envisaged to run on a battery-swapping system.

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Additionally, AtoB@C Shipping AB, a Swedish subsidiary of Finland-based shipping company ESL Shipping, has ordered a fleet of ice-classed electric hybrid vessels at a shipyard in India.