Unlike battery-powered aircraft, electric cargo ships have not yet been a hot topic in the transportation industry. And rightly so. Because to replace the heavy and bulky batteries during an ocean crossing, large container freighters would need an escort ship to transport them, and the exchange of empty accumulators with fully loaded ones would need to be done whilst at sea. An impractical, costly, and technically risky endeavor. In contrast, for inland navigating vessels and routes along shallow coastal lines, the chances of increased use of e-vessels are much better.
What remains an enduring maritime challenge on the high seas is soon becoming a reality on inland waterways and shallow coastal areas thanks to a pioneering project launched by the Chinese Cosco Shipping Company. Its management opted for constructing an electric containership that has now been presented to the broader public and local media. It will be operational soon, paving the way for more to follow, provided everything goes according to plan.
N997 could become a trailblazer
The vessel still does not have a name but is officially registered under the serial number N997. As Cosco Shipping states, it has a draft of only 5.5 meters, which allows it to operate on large or dredged rivers and in shallow coastal waters.
Once the finishing work is completed, it is expected to shuttle between the upper reaches of the Yangtze River and the port of Shanghai, providing feeder services from the Chinese hinterland to the coast of the Yellow Sea. The ship’s dimensions are 120m length x 23.6m width. It can carry up to 700 TEU per trip and connects the upstream inland port of Wuhan with Shanghai’s seaport, which is some 850 kilometers away. Work on a sister model began in MAY23.
Swapping batteries along the way
According to official data, Cosco’s e-vessels will have the largest installed battery capacity ever placed aboard a ship. They are utilizing a containerized battery approach with 36 replaceable containers as the power source. These batteries will be swapped at various ports along the vessels’ voyage on the Yangtze River.
Each of the e-vessels will be powered by two 900 kW main propulsion motors. Cosco said in a statement that the containerized batteries would be the size of a 20-foot container, with a capacity of 50,000 kWh. In addition, they are equipped with a smart ship management system, enabling them to increase their operational efficiency, reports the industry journal, Maritime Executive. It allows them to intelligently adjust energy consumption based on the given needs and battery capacities. The management system plans the ship’s sailing velocity autonomously, according to the scheduled arrival time, water flow, weather conditions, and other factors influencing its voyage.
Commercial operations could start this year
The dry dock assembly of N997 began in MAR23, after the project was kicked off in DEC22. The ship was floated at the shipyard in Yangzhou on 26JUL23 and is scheduled to commence sea trials in late September this year. This includes the close inspection of its power system followed by an official verification.
If N997 lives up to the expectations placed on the project, this could be the starting signal for the electrification of inland waterway vessels wherever their use makes sense, provided that the infrastructural conditions along the river courses are ensured to exchange empty batteries with loaded ones.
Many suitable locations worldwide
Conceivable examples could be the electrification of barges navigating on the Rio Paraná / Rio de la Plata between Santa Fé, Rosario, and Buenos Aires in Argentina, and Montevideo in Uruguay. Other examples would be e-vessels operating on the European rivers Rhine, Danube, or Elbe. In Canada, the St. Lawrence River would suit e-ships, so would the Mekong in Southeast Asia, to name but a few areas of application.
However, much will depend on a success of project N997, commercially, operationally, and regarding the infrastructural conditions needed to safeguard smooth sailings. It can be assumed that the global transportation industry will follow the outcome of the Yangtze project with great interest.
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