Energy COOL: Sailing our way to a Smart Energy Future

For many, shipping is out of sight, out of mind. So much so, for example, that shipping emissions are not covered in the Kyoto agreement or other proposed carbon reduction treaties. Few people realize that carbon dioxide emissions from the shipping industry exceeds that from aviation.  As one UK Member of Parliament put it, Shipping

has got away with doing nothing and maintained a clean image which it does not deserve.

Well, an Energy COOL step toward reducing that footprint is going to sea next month and, as part of its maiden voyage, will be calling on Boston.

As per this GreenCarCongress reporting, shipping

  • Contributed about 2.7% of anthropogenic CO2 in 2000
  • The industries CO2 emissions could double by 2050
  • Marine NOx emissions “could exceed those of road traffic” in that same time period
    • Currently marine NOx emissions are about 15% of global anthorpogenic NOx emissions and 8% of sulphur
  • “Without action, the IMO predicts that by 2020, emissions from ships would increase up to 72%”

Shipping pollution … out of sight, out of mind. … It is not fully ignored, after all, for example, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) has been working on the question of air pollution at sea.

The maritime sector (shipping) is, however, an example of a global, industrial capacity that represents a huge capital investment that can be modified, but modified over time. We won’t be able to replace every ship out there, all at the same time, and solve the problem.

There are several key paths toward achieving reduced emissions:

  • Reduced requirement/demand:  A potential exists — whether through domestic use of grains for biofuels rather than export or reduced oil imports — for reducing overall shipping requirements.  The reduced use, however, is a highly unlikely scenario outside of some major trigger (Peak Oil?) creating obstacles to international shipping.
  • Reduced fuel use/greater efficiency:  A wide range of paths exist for improving fuel efficiency, from ever better designs, better propellers, better maintained ships, reduced hotel (electrical) loads, etc … The major impact will come with new ships and new technologies, but existing ships can become more efficient.
  • Renewable fuels, such as marine biodiesel. (Note that, for example, The marine industry consumes about 10 percent of the petroleum diesel in the U.S.”) 
  • Renewable propulsion: The potential exists for a back-to-the-future use of wind power. For example,

Skysails seeks to adapt advances in kite design and understanding to the merchant marine (and luxury yacht) fleets.  As per Skysails founder, Stephan Wrage, I thought the enormous power in kites could somehow be utilised.”

The initial actual cargo ship, the 9,775 ton Beluga Skysails, is about to go on its maiden voyage.  This looks real although this is been a long anticipated event. (It had been scheduled to launch this past summer.)   The claimed expectation is that the system should cut fuel costs by 10-15 percent.  The cost for that fuel efficiency, between $700,000-$3.5 million of capital investment per ship.

 As per the Skysails site,

SkySails are wind propulsion systems for modern shipping. By using a SkySails system ship operation will become more profitable, safer and independent of declining oil reserves.


The planned product range contains towing kite propulsion systems with a nominal propulsion power of up to 5,000 kW (about 6,800 HP).  On annual average fuel costs can be lowered between 10-35% depending on actual wind conditions and actual time deployed. Under optimal wind conditions, fuel consumptions can temporarily be reduced up to 50%.


At the current oil price a SkySails propulsion creates approx. just 1/3 of the cost of a conventional ship diesel.

The Skysail will  go up to 300 meters above the ship to capture the stronger winds at altitude.    This first kite is 160 square meters.  The next two, for deployment on new Beluga ships in 2009, will be double that size (320 square meters).  And, the next generation will be 600 meters. 

“That’s where the savings get really interesting”

Maybe to the tune of over 50 percent of the ships fuel requirements.

The company has three firm orders in hand but they have an an ambitious target:  1500 vessels equipped by 2015.

“I’ve had a lot of meetings where shippers have said to me ‘If it works out on the Beluga SkySails we’re going to buy one, two, four or 10 systems’,” SkySails inventor Stephan Wrage said. “Believe me. If we’re successful now, it won’t be hard to find buyers.”

And, well, this is not just for the merchant marine. They are seeking to satisfy the luxury market as well.

With SkySails there is no compromise regarding comfort: motor yachts provide spaciousness and speed while sailing yachts offer emission- and vibration-free enjoyment. Cruising at sea is significantly more comfortable on a sailing yacht, but this is achieved with a disturbing inclined position.


The fully automated SkySails-System combines the advantages of both worlds effortlessly: On a yacht fitted with a SkySails you can glide soundlessly in motor yacht comfort.

Greater comfort with reduced fossil fuel usage.

Price tag for impact?

The Beluga Skysails’ sail:  500,000 Euros (roughly $725k).  The expectation:  fuel savings of up to $1600 per day and a 10-20 percent cut in carbon emissions.

Another perspective 

From over at Worldchanging, Jamais Cascio had this perspective on SkySails awhile ago:

While there is something superficially absurd about massive cargo ships being pulled along by kites, upon reflection the notion makes sense. It’s a novel form of “hybrid” power, taking advantage of strengths of diverse propulsion systems: the consistency of diesel engines and the free availability and startling strength of wind power. While SkySails still needs to demonstrate that their system works as claimed, we will undoubtedly see more of these “situational hybrid” power generation systems in years to come.

Absurd … maybe not.  But, “situational hybrid” provides a good phrase for considering the mixing and matching of traditional engine and far more traditional sail for a 21st century solution to moving goods and people around the world.

Skysails and Global Warming …

To be clear, 10-15% improvement won’t solve the maritime GHG contributions challenge, but it would represent a start at turning the situation around.



One response to “Energy COOL: Sailing our way to a Smart Energy Future

  1. Hey Adam!

    Just saw your post … you nkow, I was thinking, why stop at a sky sail? Somebody should invent a boat that runs on 100% wind power! Imagine, being able to travel across the globe with NO fuel!

    I know, it sounds absurd, but it just might be possible ;>)

    Hope all’s well – mateo

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