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Making the right connections: Ensuring the UK has the right energy infrastructure for clean maritime leadership

UKMPG Blog by Tim Morris, CEO

MARITIME’S transition to a zero emissions future will necessitate seismic change, and much of the press coverage so far has focused directly on shipping itself, including ultra-low sulphur fuels, scrubbers, shoreside power, LNG and other developments. But a crucial component of any successful outcome will involve building the right connections with the energy sector.

It’s been my pleasure over the last few months to chair a working group of the UK Government’s Clean Maritime Council, which has looked in detail at the interaction between the two industries. The Clean Maritime Council is an advisory body formed by the UK government, in line with its Maritime 2050 ambition to “consider the introduction of a target to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases and air quality pollutants from UK shipping towards zero.”

The establishment of the energy systems working group came in recognition of the crucial enabling role of the broader energy sector in realising this goal. With that in mind, the group has involved not just ship and port operators but academics, innovators and network operators from the energy sector, as well and other transport sectors like rail.

It’s been a fascinating and – pun entirely intended – ‘energising’ experience. There’s lots going on already. Hydrogen ferries being built on the Clyde; electric and hybrid vehicles and vessels at our ports; wind-assisted and LNG vessels already operating at commercial scale; and innovators developing new propulsion options, including hydrogen, ammonia, renewables and others. But this only the beginning. And such diversity of activity brings challenges for those in both the private and public sectors who will need to at some point place ‘big bets’ in terms of large vessels and major infrastructure.

Our working group identified four, interlocking areas that constrain the development of the energy infrastructure needed to ensure lower emissions from maritime sector in the UK:

  1. Firstly, technology. The current diversity of options means uncertainty for decision makers and raises the risk of wasted incentives and stranded assets.
  2. Scondly, there are questions of energy infrastructure. Historically, the maritime energy system has operated relatively discretely from the landside energy networks. Increased electrification of port operations and at least some kinds of vessel seem overwhelmingly likely. This means a substantially greater ‘baseload’ requirement and much ‘peakier’ demand spikes. Maritime hubs in the UK are often at the end of power lines, and in many cases there is simply not the physical capacity to service such new demand.
  3. Thirdly, in economic terms, the demand for low to zero emission fuels, although growing, is low and patchy. The capex and opex requirements of such technologies are, in many cases, challenging.
  4. Finally, although regulation is all too often overlooked, it is crucial that the safety case for future propulsion options is properly addressed. Non-maritime regulation, such as in environmental and spatial planning can be important barriers to change. And the regulation of the UK’s energy market and infrastructure is at best Byzantine and at worst presents major barriers to implementing lower emissions options.
  5. Making change happen will be expensive and will require change from stakeholders outside the maritime sector as well as huge efforts by industry itself. Sounds daunting.

But what’s been highly encouraging to me is the capacity and appetite for change within the maritime sector, with plenty of evidence that change is already underway.

So, what did our working group identify as some of the actions that government could take to support their ambitions for change whilst reducing the risk of wasted resource for us all?

Concrete measures that could help in our view include building future propulsion systems and network development requirements into research and development programmes; comprehensive mapping of energy supply infrastructure in coastal regions; ensuring that future maritime demand scenarios are properly integrated into network planning; a strategic funding vehicle for investment in capacity upgrades around key constrained point nodes; and a review of key regulatory areas influencing the future propulsion systems landscape.

In short, uncertainty is significant and ‘picking winners’ therefore difficult and potentially dangerous. The most useful role government can play is to create the conditions to better enable technology discovery and reduce barriers to deployment. Industry and innovators can then do what they do best – discover solutions and then invest to sustainably implement them at scale.

There’s huge amounts activity and potential – it’s up to industry and Government to play their right respective roles in delivering the huge change required.

Making the right connections: Ensuring the UK has the right energy infrastructure for clean maritime leadership
Making the right connections: Ensuring the UK has the right energy infrastructure for clean maritime leadership