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Alternative fuels need to move beyond the VHS versus Betamax stage

CMA CGM has dropped one of its orders for methanol-fuelled ships in favour of LNG. This is characteristic of the ongoing confusion in the shipping industry about what fuel represents the best way forward

One was the better product. The other actually succeeded in the marketplace

FOR the benefit of Millennial and Gen Z readers, we present a grim tale of what life was like for mum and dad before streaming television.

Until two Japanese companies launched rival analogue technologies in the early 1980s, it was impossible to record The Young Ones, Yes Minister and Match of the Day to watch when one got home from the pub.

But consumers were forced to lay out what was a sizeable sum of money at the time for one of two packages. The winner was JVC’s Video Home System, which rapidly became dominant.

In those dark days before Netflix, the now long-gone Blockbuster Video became a hugely profitable multinational chain store, as punters flocked to rent VHS copies of Ghostbusters, ET the Extraterrestrial and Dirty Dancing for as much as £1.99 a night.

While nobody put baby in a corner, that is precisely what happened to Sony’s Betamax equipment. It simply never took off, leaving buyers substantially out of pocket.

Roughly speaking, alternative marine fuels have reached roughly the same stage in their evolution, with rival contenders on the market and shipowners compelled to choose between them.

The most recent case in point is CMA CGM, one of the big three container line companies, which carries sufficient clout in the industry for its example to count for something. But when it comes to the fuel transition, the French boxship giant seems as disoriented as everybody else.

As Lloyd’s List reported this week, the dual fuel specs on the eight 9,200 teu vessels ordered from Shanghai Waigaoqiao Shipbuilding last September have been quietly switched from methanol to LNG. This was the fourth and latest round of orders for methanol-fuelled ships by CMA CGM. The group still has an orderbook of 24 for vessels powered by the alternative fuel.

CMA CGM cited methanol prices and lack of availability, and, everything else being equal, that would be that. It is not for a bunch of journalists in London to tell shipowners in Marseilles how to run their business.

This is, of course, an ongoing debate, with arguments for and against all the available options.

Methanol has the potential to cut lifecycle carbon dioxide emissions by around two-thirds if produced sustainably, and even by 70%-plus if produced from renewable energy.

Maersk has already placed its chips and taken delivery of its first methanol-powered ship, and has set up its own methanol production firm to meet its needs.

But as we have argued before, methanol is not innately green. Burn it and the basic laws of chemistry dictate that you emit CO2.

What arguably gives it the edge is that LNG only reduces the same yardstick by up to 18% in the best-case scenario. That is not even in line with International Maritime Organization’s 2030 target of cutting emissions by 20%, and to strive for 30% from a 2008 baseline.

It should also be noted that the European Union’s emissions trading system tax will explicitly target methane emissions from 2026, which is likely to make LNG more expensive to use in the long run.

By way of an argument in its defence, CMA CGM would probably invoke Voltaire’s dictum that the better should never be the enemy of the good.

Moreover, some of these ships will burn bio-LNG made from organic waste. Unfortunately, bio-LNG is not scalable and has the many of the problems associated with fossil LNG, including the omnipresent ‘methane slip’. When fuel and air are burned together in an engine, some methane goes unburned and escapes into the sky. 

And whatever the problems of getting hold of green methanol right now, it will soon be much easier to come by. Energy producers will start offering green methanol within the next six months.

Other shipowners have been focusing on ammonia as the alternative fuel with the best potential to be scaled. Produced with renewable energy, it cuts lifecycle CO2 emissions by a stunning 98%, and doesn’t require additional CO2 in production.

While marine engine technology is not yet ready for ammonia propulsion, the expectation is that it will be so in no more than a few years from now.

Indeed, the two big names in the Saverys stable, Compagnie Maritime Belge and Exmar, have already ordered ammonia dual fuel tankers and bulk carriers.

Our point is that it is high time the industry achieved clarity on the energy transition. There is not enough time, and, just as crucially, not enough cash, to build the three lots of infrastructure needed to handle three different types of new fuels.

The likelihood is that when one of them starts to gain a clear edge in popularity, that is the one the bunker suppliers will invest in.

The irony of the videotape wars was that Betamax was actually technically superior, not least in terms of picture quality. But VHS was handier in the sense that it was capable of longer recording times, and most of all, it was cheaper to manufacture.

But cost is not the sole salient consideration when getting behind an alternative fuel; the atmosphere is. As things appear now, green methanol still looks the best shot, and CMA CGM may yet regret its reversal.

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