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Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.

December 10, 2012 at 10:03 AM

Seattle company developing hybrid megaships

With a Prius on every block and Teslas on sale at the mall, it’s hard to make a statement with a hybrid in Seattle nowadays.

You need a pretty special eco-friendly vehicle to stand out.

I thought the suborbital space freighter that Paul Allen is building out of recycled 747s would take the cake.

Then I heard about the two 764-foot, dual-fuel megaships being built for Seattle-based TOTE.


When they go into service in 2015 and 2016, the hybrid ships will be the most environmentally friendly container ships in the world, the company said in its announcement last week.

Emissions of particulate matter will be reduced by 99 percent, enabling TOTE to sail through strict clean-air regulations applied to coastal areas around the world.

It’s a huge investment — more than $350 million – by Saltchuk Resources, a family-owned Seattle business that quietly operates TOTE and a huge network of maritime and shipping companies.

At first blush this seems like a crazy move. There’s a glut of ships worldwide after a surge of construction over the past decade, chasing the rise in global trade. But that glut has created a buyer’s market for new ships.

TOTE also is being proactive and using new technology to get ahead of environmental measures that are pushing maritime companies around the world to operate cleaner ships.

“Somebody has to do it and get out in front of it,” Phil Morrell, TOTE’s vice president of marine and terminal operations, told me last week.

This isn’t the first time Saltchuk has been first with a fancy hybrid. In 2009 its Foss Maritime group began operating the world’s first hybrid diesel-electric tugboat (pictured), in Southern California. It worked so well that a second tug was retrofitted with the hybrid propulsion system, for which Foss and its design partners received a patent this year.


I wouldn’t call these granola boats, though. Going green in this case is smart business as much as altruism.

International treaties have established “emission control areas” in coastal areas where TOTE operates, including a zone of about 200 miles off the coasts of Canada and the United States. Within these areas, ships must use cleaner, low-sulfur fuel or take other steps to cut harmful emissions.

This past August, the maximum sulfur content of fuel used in these areas fell from 3.5 to 1 percent. It falls again in 2015 to 0.1 percent. The current plan calls for a global limit of 0.5 percent sulfur starting in 2020.

To meet these requirements, ships must use more refined — and more expensive — fuel. That makes advanced technologies like hybrid engines more appealing.

Morrell said 1 percent sulfur fuel costs 30 percent more than regular “heavy” fuel oil. He expects the 0.1 percent limit will increase fuel costs by about 60 percent in 2015.

Ships may also comply with emissions requirements by adding devices such as exhaust “scrubbers” that capture waste material for disposal on shore. Or they can switch to clean burning liquefied natural gas, or LNG, which is relatively cheap and plentiful.

Engines that TOTE’s using on its new ships can convert on the fly from diesel to LNG as they enter zones with different emissions requirements, without a drop in speed.

The engines are being built in South Korea using technology licensed from a European conglomerate. A Korean company is designing the ships, which will be built in San Diego by General Dynamics Nassco. TOTE may not stop at two; it has options for three more of the same class.

MAN dual fuel.png

LNG is already widely used in Scandinavia by ferries, coast-guard ships and smaller tankers. It’s coming to oil-industry support ships in the Gulf of Mexico, and Washington state is considering LNG ferries. Eventually the big international shipping companies will also make the switch, Morrell said.

In shipping circles, this is more than a system update. It’s seen as a monumental shift to new propulsion technology.

“The analogy is very similar to the transition from sail to steam, or when they went to coal, or when they went from coal to oil,” Morrell said. “It’s just another evolution in the maritime industry and the type of energy you’re going to use to propel your vessel. It’s a new era.”

It’s expensive to be ahead of the curve, though. Morrell said the ships’ propulsion system costs 15 to 20 percent more than a traditional system.

“It’s like buying a hybrid car,” he said. “The hybrid car is a little bit more expensive than the regular gas version because of the components and the technology.”

TOTE will operate its hybrid ships between Puerto Rico and Jacksonville, Fla. They’ll haul cars, food, pharmaceuticals and all sorts of other products to and from the island. They also will sail in a new Caribbean Sea emissions control area that takes effect in January 2014.

Cleaner propulsion is also coming to ships that TOTE operates between Tacoma and Alaska. The company has started designing an LNG system to retrofit its two 839-foot Orca class ships that were built in 2003.

TOTE expects that its work adding LNG infrastructure on shore will help other ship operators move to LNG.

LNG takes up valuable deck space with large gas tanks. TOTE’s new ships will feature large gas tanks on the aft deck, with a platform for storing containers above the tanks. Still, TOTE said it’s new ships will carry five times more containers than ships currently serving Puerto Rico.

TOTE expects its new hybrids will be the largest ships in the world powered primarily by LNG.

They get my inaugural Emerald Trident Award.

Unless Paul Allen gets a wild hair and starts bolting together mothballed aircraft carriers to build a seagoing, recycled launch platform for his space freighter.

TOTE_LNG_PropulsionSystem_Cutaway (3).jpg

Comments | More in | Topics: Billionaire techies, Enterprise, environmental


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