Could sails once again move Great Lakes cargo?

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The American Bureau of Sailing recently approved the design of Veer Groups’ sailing vessels.

Veer Group

The American Bureau of Sailing recently approved the design of Veer Groups’ sailing vessels.

By AUDREY RICHARDSON
Capital News Service

LANSING – A start-up company recently got design approval to build a ship that moves cargo with sails rather than fuel.

And will cargo vessels on the Great Lakes be able to “veer” into alternative power?

The 330-foot-long, hydrogen cell-powered sailing vessel is proposed by the Veer Group, a Bahamas-based company committed to zero carbon emissions. The American Bureau of Shipping approved the design.

“If there was a desire for this in the Great Lakes, it would just make me super-happy to be able to fulfill that,” said Veer CEO Danielle Doggett.

Whether such vessels will someday ply the Great Lakes is uncertain.

But interest is high in decarbonizing shipping. 

University of Michigan naval architecture and marine engineering professor Matthew Collette said cleaner shipping comes at a crucial time for action, 

Globally, shipping’s 100,000 vessels are responsible for 3% of carbon emissions, according to Maersk Mc-Kinney Moller Center, a nonprofit research company committed to decarbonizing the maritime industry.

The U.S. Maritime Administration recently announced a study to explore low-carbon options for shipping on the Great Lakes. The group, which includes the International Council on Clean Transportation and the American Bureau of Shipping, is looking at alternative fuels and power. 

The study will examine environmentally friendly fuel alternatives like biofuel and how to incorporate different power systems, like hydrogen fuel cells, into Great Lakes shipping, according to a press release.

Combustion engines have dominated the shipping industry since the 1930s. 

Veer is looking to bring sailing cargo back, Doggett said. The company seeks funding to begin an 18-month build and have two vessels sailing by 2024 and six by 2026.

Greenhouse gas emissions contribute significantly to climate change. They increase global temperatures, weather variability and air pollution.

The Great Lakes have seen the adverse effects of emissions from increased flooding, algal blooms and soil erosion, researchers say.

“Veer sail ships in the Great Lakes would make a lot of sense,” Doggett said.

One reason is that the company’s plans are consistent with the clean shipping goals of the U.S. and Canada, Doggett said.

Another aspect for the Great Lakes is that the hydrogen fuel cells produce freshwater. It would be nice to excrete fresh water into a freshwater lake rather than into the ocean, Doggett said.

Growing up around Great Lakes ships in Kingston, Ontario, inspired her field of work, she said.

Cleaner shipping comes at a crucial time for action, said U-M’s Collette.

In 2021, the U.S. joined a United Nations coalition to reach net zero emissions. 

President Joe Biden’s executive order emphasized the goal of reaching net zero carbon emissions from federal operations by 2050. Reaching zero means replacing energy sources that produce synthetic emissions with renewable energy sources, like solar and wind power.

Collette said, “If we want to be at zero carbon by 2050, the decisions we make in the next five years are really going to shape what fuel will become dominant.”

Great Lakes vessels see the impact of climate change primarily through variability in lake levels, extreme cold weather and major weather events, said Jim Weakley, the president of the Lake Carriers’ Association, a group participating in the Maritime Administration study.

“If the levels are low, or lower than normal, for each inch of water we lose as much as 270 tons of cargo per vessel load,” said Weakley. Members of his organization move over 90 million tons of cargo throughout the Great Lakes each year.

Debra DiCianna, the association’s director of environmental affairs said the group wants to reduce the risk of climate change and is open to using Veer Group vessels once they are sailing, 

But using the existing ships on the Great Lakes would be better, she said.

“With our membership and their existing fleet, they are doing well at hauling the cargo that they need to,” DiCianna said.

Collette said Veer’s sailing vessels may be part of the solution, but figuring out a balance of technologies and fuel is the way to a more sustainable future.

“We don’t have a single winning technology today that everyone is pointing to and saying ‘this is the way forward,’” he said.

While Veer’s methods may not be in the cards for the Great Lakes for several years, the idea of sail-assist to reduce emissions is relevant today, Collette said.

It is easier to update existing vessels by adding sails or replacing combustion engines with a lower sulfur level fuel cell, he said.

“Adding sails to existing ships might reduce emissions from 10% to 30%, he said. “But I think we are also going to have to figure out a zero carbon fuel source for them.”

Alternative fuels that don’t involve burning a hydrocarbon include methanol, ammonia and hydrogen, Collette said.

“There’s a lot of work to be done on figuring out which one of those will be the most effective,” he said.

Decarbonizing Great Lakes shipping may require multiple approaches.

“We need to make sure we are taking a holistic view of minimizing our impact on the lakes and the people who live around the lakes,” Collette said.

Audrey Richardson reports for Great Lakes Echo.