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Q&A: Peter Fitzpatrick on IMO 2020, environmental concerns and alternative fuels

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As environmental concerns drive a push for alternatives fuels, what has been learnt since the implementation of the Sulphur 2020 cap? As part of the Saudi Maritime Congress 2020, leading industry executives look at what this will mean for shipping and the impact on the alternative fuel landscape.

In this Q&A Peter Fitzpatrick, Vice President Strategic Development, ABS, talks about the development of alternative fuel sources and 2050 IMO targets.

Why do you view ‘The Fuel Revolution to 2050’ as an important conversation point for the industry?

Shipping is being impacted by a combination of social, commercial and regulatory pressures; there is no doubt that the choices that shipowners make in the next decade are going to impact their business for many years to come.

At a broad scale, society is under pressure to move towards a decarbonized economy.

The net effect will likely be significant for shipping, with a reduction in the transport of hydrocarbon fuels and an acceleration of the development of alternative fuel sources for vessels.

In terms of regulation, vessels designed today, contracted next year and delivered in 2023 will be operating in 2043 and will need to satisfy the prevailing IMO requirements at that time, differing significantly from emissions requirements in place today.

We are already seeing how the fuels used in shipping are changing. A combination of social, regulatory and commercial drivers will lead to new alternative power sources becoming credible choices in the years ahead. The industry needs to ensure these alternatives are safe as well as widely available and affordable at the required scale.

Furthermore, the solutions that are being proposed do not exhibit the same maturity rate across the board. There are solutions that will be able to provide the level of decarbonization required to comply with the requirements of 2050 but are not mature yet from a technical as well as an availability point of view.
Therefore, in order to meet the requirements for 2050, our industry has to start now exploring the pathways and pushing for the developments required to get us there.

Following implementation of the IMO sulphur cap on 1 January 2020, have the issues regarding the potential for non-compliance and availability and quality of low-sulphur fuel been overstated?

Talking to many of our clients and shipowners it seems that most have successfully navigated the first few months of the new requirements. There have been some initial challenges in having bunkers supplied on the dates requested but such reports have gradually declined; supply is available in most of the major ports when shipowners have requested it.

Few owners have reported major problems with the quality of the fuel they have received but a small minority are seeing issues with compatibility, with compliant bunkers having lower viscosity than desired, creating the need for crews to take extra care when dealing with this. 

As a precautionary measure, we are working with owners to suggest additional bunker fuel tests to verify fuel quality and identify substances in the fuel which may result in dispute before it is loaded.

The first few months of any such major piece of regulation represent a transition rather than the end point and as such we will continue to monitor the situation and provide advice to clients when needed.

How confident are you that the IMO can reach agreement on a full strategy and roadmap to reach its own 2050 goals?

The short answer is that nobody knows; there is a lot that must be done before we get there. What we can say is that in setting the 2030 and 2050 targets the IMO has aligned itself with the higher UN strategy so the industry must assume that it has every intention of meeting these goals.

That said, we will not know the final shape of the required reductions in carbon intensity until the IMO issues its final guidance in 2023. However, the industry has a starting point for immediate actions to improve energy efficiency based on the IMO’s initial strategy, while work continues through the MEPC and intersessional working groups towards further measures.

The IMO’s strategy is detailed – including the collection of emissions data on a global fleet basis and conducting the 4th GHG study to better determine shipping’s contribution to climate change – including actions such as capacity building in developing nations. 

Though 2030 is relatively close in the life of the average trading vessel, once the industry knows what carbon reductions it must comply with, the design of ships and development of the necessary fuel supply chains to power them can begin in earnest.

Which upcoming alternative fuel sources do you think will make an impact on the industry over the coming years?

We have seen a lot of interest in gas as marine fuel, notably LNG, with a number of owners also looking at LPG. The LNG marine fuel complex is expanding, with fuel infrastructure growing, although it has a long way to go to provide strong regional or world-wide coverage. 

In the short to medium term, dual fuel vessels are likely to be the predominant technology that owners will adopt, though this does not suit all ships or trading routes. We will see more specialisation in fuel systems for specific vessel designs, with solutions such as hybrid power using batteries and fuel cells alongside conventional fuels. Other short sea/coastal solutions such as methanol and even auxiliary wind power are also gaining interest.

In the medium to long-term, the industry appears to have a choice between hydrogen, ammonia and biofuels produced from renewable sources. A significant amount of research is being carried out into hydrogen and ammonia to understand the implications of net carbon neutral production, safety and availability issues. 

It’s unlikely that any one of these will become the dominant marine fuel any time soon. Future fuel solutions will be dictated by which fuel best suits which application; whether fuel cells, sustainable biofuels or more exotic alternatives. It is important to understand also that while IMO measures such as EEDI consider emissions from tank to wake, some of the 37 proposed short term measures submitted to IMO for adoption are addressing well to wake; intensifying the impetus for the fuel supply chain to take a share of the burden of producing green fuels.

ABS believes that the most valuable fuel of the future is not hydrogen or LNG but ideas; the need to develop concepts that break the barriers of the way we think about fuels, propulsion and what we consider sustainable shipping.

Why do you think it’s important to participate in events like Saudi Maritime Congress? 

It’s clear from an examination of the challenges facing shipping that the development of successful solutions requires an unprecedented degree of collaboration between the various stakeholders: owners/operators, regulators, class, fuel suppliers, shipbuilders and equipment manufacturers. No one stakeholder can begin to tackle the challenges of sustainable shipping operations on their own.

Events like the Saudi Maritime Congress enable stakeholders to connect, build relationships critical to addressing the challenges and hear examples of best practice and success that act as a spur to the wider industry in seeking to meet these challenges.