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SEACOR goes electric

In a joint venture with COSCO, SEACOR contracted to buy eight Rolls-Royce-designed, DNV GL-classed new-construction platform supply vessels from COSCO Shipping Heavy Industry (Guangdong) shipyard. They will be outfitted with state-of-the-art battery energy storage systems jointly provided by Rolls-Royce Marine and Corvus Energy.

The international shipping industry is under immense pressure to move in the direction of alternative fuels and the drivers behind this push are interlinked. High fuel prices, more stringent enviornmental regulations, and increased stakeholder pressure to manage enviornmental and climate risks have spurred the development of new energy sources, and many of those sources are now mature.

 Shipowners have little choice but to evaluate the use of alternative fuels and zero-emissions technologies if they wish to remain competitive in the market. But what approach is best? That decision requires thoughtful consideration of the ship type, operating profile, and fuel availability. For vessels with various power demand operations, a battery hybrid solution is a strong contender, and offshore support vessels owners are eyeing the option.  

To position the company for the future, SEACOR Marine Holdings Inc. (SEACOR) has taken a bold step and embraced this new propulsion technology. The Louisiana-based operator signed contracts in 2017 to convert two series of platform supply vessels (PSVs) to battery hybrid power. Through SEACOR’s joint ventures in Mexico and China, the company will operate a total of 12 battery hybrid-powered vessels, which includes four PSVs contracted to operate in the Gulf of Mexico and eight PSVs for worldwide operations.

Hybrid power reduces emissions

Reflecting on SEACOR’s journey, Tim Clerc, Manager of Engineering, emphasized that the decision for batteries was one the company carefully thought through. SEACOR had been evaluating the benefits of battery hybrid propulsion and how to apply it for several years. This evaluation led the company to take an active role in the 2015 DNV GL-managed joint industry project (JIP) “Opportunities and Barriers in Maritime for Hybrid Electric Power for Backup and Propulsion”, which aimed to solidify the next steps toward widespread utilization of battery hybrid power in the offshore oil and gas sector.

Through their participation, SEACOR validated the conclusions of the study on a cost-benefit basis for their operations. “We believed that we could significantly reduce fuel consumption using battery hybrid technology, and our basis for that was not only our work but the work we did jointly with DNV GL on the JIP, which used one of our vessels as a source of data. That vessel is now in service, and the savings we’ve seen so far are in line with the findings of the JIP,” said Clerc.

The JIP concluded that savings in fuel and emissions are highly duty-cycle dependent; indicators for a good value proposition of a hybrid vessel are extended periods of low loads or transient duty cycles that swing from very low loads to very high loads, similar to those of a PSV operating profile — especially during dynamic positioning operations. Over the engine maintenance cycle of 50,000 hours that was looked at in this study, the fuel savings result in significant reduction of CO2 emissions (19,600 tonnes for a PSV). Similarly, the total combined amount of NOX, SOX and CH4 emissions avoided is also significant at 1,970 kilograms.

Increasing competitiveness

Subject to shareholder pressure, Exxon, Shell, and BP have all announced initiatives to reduce emissions and have publicly adopted plans to report the risks, climate change pose to their core businesses. These activities meanwhile, have translated to an oversupply of OSVs and ship operators are seeing historically low charter rates and utilization. 

The price per barrel of oil has forced the oil industry to make dramatic changes in the name of efficiency, and now oil companies are feeling the heat of climate change as well. SEACOR felt the fuel savings they could achieve through battery hybrid propulsion would give the company the boost it needed to stand out in the market.

 “We are in the business of chartering ships. Lots of owners today have similar-sized, modern PSVs. So how do we differentiate ourselves? Fuel efficiency was the way we believed we could offer better value to our customers – hence the DNV GL notation for batteries,” stated Clerc, as he shared insight on SEACOR’s thought process. “If we take our eight DNV GL – classed COSCO vessels, for instance, they were quite optimized already in terms of hull form, propulsion and power generation, which limits how much we might improve there.

We needed to utilize technologies that can reduce fuel consumption. When we look at emissions, there are after treatment systems on the market and Tier-4 in-engine systems available, but the easiest way to reduce emissions is to simply burn less fuel.”

Container solution for marine batteries

The Rolls-Royce Marine battery containers for the SEACOR project have been surveyed and tested as complete units to the extent possible prior to shipment to the vessels. In a pilot project, DNV GL has issued product certificates for the complete containers, which includes the structure with fire insulation, certified components like batteries, chargers and transformers, electrical installations in the container and testing of the complete container as a component. This will reduce onboard testing and allow for a shorter commissioning time.

Reliable energy source

Though fuel efficiency may have been a primary driver for SEACOR’s decision, the company does expect to earn other rewards; the full list of which is better understood now, compared “We look at it as our ability to offer a more efficient vessel foremost, but one with dynamic performance and with greater redundancy of systems,” stated Clerc as he highlighted some of the safety benefits of batteries. “During DP simulations, we see that we have an extended period during which we can safely disconnect from the rig. We have a far more robust system when it comes to blackout prevention and recovery in the event of a blackout.” SEACOR also values this increased reliability because it appeals to charterers.

These elements combine to not only save fuel but also reduce running hours on equipment. “On paper, we see the savings in maintenance being considerable. Of course, that has yet to be realized, and we are only going to see that over time,” said Clerc, adding that SEACOR is making major investments to have crews trained on the new energy management systems, supplied to the two series of vessels by Kongsberg and Rolls-Royce respectively. “Like any innovative technology on board, just how much savings we will see from it will depend a lot on the crew. They are excited about it though, and it is refreshing to see their enthusiasm about being onboard and part of something that is cutting edge. As our crews gain more experience with the operation of these systems and, importantly, as they learn to trust in their reliability, I think we will see greater savings come out of it. For example, generators won’t be running needlessly.”

Though there is a learning curve with operating these systems, the crew on board will benefit from their use right from the beginning. “Electric power minimizes noise and vibration because the generators are loaded more evenly,” said Clerc. “We already build our vessels to Comfort Class, but the crew will have an even more comfortable working environment with this. We want to do what we can to improve life onboard, and we want our people to be well rested before they go on watch so that they can stay alert while they’re carrying out their duties.”

Emissions reduction, energy savings, improved responsiveness, regularity and safety, as well as the overall technology developments of hybrid technology, were all factors in SEACOR’s investment decision.

Electrifying the future

While SEACOR’s current retrofit projects will bring twelve energy- efficient and cleaner vessels to the market, Clerc says the company is just getting started: “We’re not going to stop innovating, we will do more.” SEACOR’s decision to invest big and early in hybrid technology, Clerc believes, is an advantage and makes a statement about SEACOR’s outlook to the future. “We see greater interest from charterers, with some specifically asking for hybrid power now, particularly those in the North Sea. You can never stop moving forward, and SEACOR is not a company that rests on its laurels,” he said. “By the end of 2019, SEACOR Marine Holdings aims to have the largest fleet of hybrid vessels anywhere in the world. In this market, that is how much we believe in this system.”

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