Ahoy! Sails Make A Comeback On Cargo Ships

Shipping operates out of the jurisdiction of any laws or regulations that cover emissions, but some companies are making attempts to reduce their footprint. One idea: good old-fashioned wind power.

Ahoy! Sails Make A Comeback On Cargo Ships
This isn’t an old boat, it’s a modern cargo ship powered by the wind. Sails: Still golden after all these years. B9

Shipping has not exactly been at the forefront of clean energy innovation. While carmakers have built the Prius and the Volt, and airlines have tested fuels made from algae and jatropha, much of the maritime industry has kept on cruising.


Part of the reason for that is regulatory. Shipping is not covered by the Kyoto Protocol, and is exempted from schemes like the European Union’s Emissions Trading System. There is also a lot of conservatism in the industry, according to Diane Gilpin, of B9 Shipping, which is developing some of the first ships running solely on renewable power–ships with sails.

“Shipping is offshore, so none of the emissions fall into national jurisdiction. There are also complex problems about accounting for carbon, and it is a relatively hidden industry. As consumers, we tend not to be aware of it,” she adds.

Things could be changing, though. This week, a key U.K. committee recommended that shipping be included in plans to cut GHGs. Earlier this summer, California expanded rules aimed at cutting GHGs from in-bound boats. And, the UN International Maritime Organisation has pledged to improve fuel efficiency.

And, several environmentally friendly vessels have started appearing. There was the Auriga Leader, Toyota’s 60,000-ton solar-powered car-carrier; this wave-powered concept ship from the Fraunhofer Center of Manufacturing Innovation; and the Swiss-built Türanor–the world’s largest solar-powered yacht, covered in 6,458 square feet of PV.

B9’s prototype is 100 meters long, and made for journeys of up to 1,000 miles. The company claims that its sails will be sufficient for 60% of trips, with the rest powered by an engine fed with biogas made from food waste. B9, which is partnered with Rolls-Royce, KPMG, and two U.K. universities, is part of the B9 Energy group, the largest renewables company in Northern Ireland.

Gilpin says the ships will be ready to set sail in 24 to 36 months, if all goes well. B9 is targeting biomass energy operators that import feedstock into the U.K. She says it doesn’t make sense for such cargo to be carried using fossil fuel-powered boats.


Although it is in its early days, projects like B9’s could mean a new age of sail shipping, driven by advances in sail technology and the need to cut costs and emissions. A recent study by the Berlin Technical University found that wind-powered boats could achieve carbon savings of up to 44% over average carriers.

Gilpin says the main obstacles are getting the industry to accept new concepts, and training people to operate sail ships again. “Not many people know how to do it. But it’s all automated from the bridge. So you don’t need to be an yacht-racing skipper.”

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.