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Could biofuels power the shipping industry?

Biofuels could replace conventional fossil fuels in marine transport, helping the industry to become carbon neutral as well as reducing harmful emissions, according to Ecofys.

By Kari Williamson

These are the main findings of a broad-scale assessment into the potential of using biofuels as an alternative to oil or gas for shipping and the effects that it would have on economy and environment by Ecofys.

Compared to road and air transport, the shipping sector is lagging behind in improving its sustainability profile. Aiming to address this situation, Ecofys examined the technical, economic, and sustainability effects, along with the legal framework and organisational aspects of using biofuels in the shipping sector. The study was commissioned by the European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA).

The study shows it is technically possible to replace marine fossil fuels with biofuels for use in ship engines. Adjustments to the fuel supply chain depend on ship type and engine type, the type of biofuels that is introduced and the blend percentage.

A gradual switch to biofuels could offer new business opportunities in the whole fuel supply chain for marine fuels. This includes the current fuel bunker companies supplying the shipping market while the blending of biofuels with marine fuels is expected to be most likely at the bunker stations.

Barriers

Market barriers, such as uncoordinated market incentives, need to be tackled to accelerate the introduction of biofuels. For instance, the Renewable Energy Directive sets obligatory targets for renewable fuels in the transport sector, including the use of renewable fuels in shipping transport. However, member states have a certain amount of freedom to implement the Directive on this part in their national legislation, often leading to a preferred offset of renewable fuels in road transport.

Also, for shipping, the legislation on a European level complementary to the international global legislation can be confusing. Aside from the Renewable Energy Directive on European Commission level, restrictions on sulphur content of marine fuels are set out in the international Marpol Convention2.

“If sulphur restrictions for marine fuels are tightened, biofuels triumph as they contain no sulphur. Their biodegradability also reduces the risk of marine pollution in case of spills. These advantages are not yet well reflected in current legislation,” Anouk Florentinus, Project Manager at Ecofys, says.

"Introducing biofuels as a sustainable alternative fuel can change the current fuel supply chain completely. We have already seen this for road transport; we see this in current developments in aviation, and are certain this can also create new opportunities in the shipping sector.”

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