Wind Energy at Sea


A German company, SkySails, has developed an intriguing application for wind energy: Powering ships at sea; from yachts to, eventually, the giant freighters that fill our Wal-Marts and Home Depots with stuff to buy, and our air with contaminants and greenhouse gases, in particular sulfur dioxide.

Beluga Shipping of Bremen announced it would be the first shipping company to use SkySails’ huge mechanized kites. By next year SkySails will have installed a 1,500-square foot nylon kite on a 12,000-ton Beluga vessel, which will run routes between Europe and the Americas.

A kite? Think about what happens when you fly a kite. Even though you don’t want the kite to pull you, its force suggests that maybe it could. Your wrist and hands make subtle adjustments to catch the most wind so you can keep your kite aloft and your line tight. By dipping or circling the kite, you can generate more force. Same thing happens with a SkySail, only the steering of the kite is done by an autopilot that constantly feeds wind information to a computer on board the ship.

This Popular Science article (which the SkySails site links to) discusses several wind energy ideas for shipping vessels, including polyurethane-coated sails attached to masts designed to mimic the bone structure of a bat’s wings, and blimp-like kites that would act like aerial tugboats. The pitch to the notably conservative and highly cost sensitive shipping industry: Reducing fuel costs, which are the largest single cost borne by freighters.

I don’t know if the International Maritime Organization is studying kites and sails for its members, but last week they did announce a review of its emission standards. Local officials in port cities like Los Angeles and Long Beach have despaired for years about their limited ability to control pollution from shipping as the traffic (and its importance to the economy) grows. Even the U.S. EPA has been pretty much helpless, they say, in controlling an amorphous industry whose ships will change flags at the drop of a hat.

But, according to the LA Times, the IMO’s new look at air pollution “is the result of pressure from European nations.” It certainly was my observation over the years that U.S. officials tended to shrug at the complexity of regulating the shipping industry, and that individual ports feared offending customers who might bolt to another port that wouldn’t hassle them.

The idea of having a kite help pull a freighter is a quantum leap beyond the discussion of marginal reductions of sulfur in fuel. But it would certainly make shipping cool for the first time in a long while.

P.S. Thanks, Todd, for the tip!