As shipbuilders and shipping companies face a tighter squeeze on emissions quotas, Skoon is creating a genuine alternative to reliance on diesel power.
In July 2018, Damen Shipyards Group formally announced a partnership with fledgling logistics company Skoon, and at World Port Days in September 2018, Skoon officially launched its first ‘Skoonbox’. These are encouraging steps for a company that goes against the current of traditional shipping. How so? Skoon is offering a genuine, viable alternative to oil-based marine power – and it’s a timely idea.
Skoon’s co-founder, Peter Paul van Voorst tot Voorst, conceived of a model for electrically-powered vessels while working part-time at Damen and studying Marine Technology at the Delft University of Technology. He was focused on the perennial problem of designing a future for ships that would make them cleaner, more comfortable and more efficient in their operation. His challenge was to find a solution to a three-stranded problem:
- The technical issue of how to reduce emissions in the short term while ensuring the capacity for future improvement.
- The practical issue of introducing a solution that can easily be incorporated into the daily operation of vessels.
- The economic issue of how to make such a solution financially competitive with current and future alternatives.
Emissions-reducing solutions for shipping include engines powered by liquefied natural gas or by hydrogen cells, but these are expensive to implement and at present offer little scope for upgrade once installed. The introduction of a ‘battery box’ would require little imposition on the structure and operation of a ship’s propulsion and the removable batteries could be replaced following the development of newer, more efficient methods of energy storage.
As transport ships currently refuel while unloading and loading cargo, an alternative power solution would need to seamlessly replace the refueling part of this process. While cars can be charged overnight, ships never sleep – their structure doesn’t feature charging ports, and a static connection would hamper their mobility. By providing exchangeable batteries, the ship doesn’t need to wait around while charging, and is free to leave port as soon as the cargo is loaded.
The development and production of transport-grade shipping batteries is expensive – the cost must be offset somewhere. The ingenious solution to this challenge is to make these essentially ‘mobile’ batteries compatible with onshore, as well as offshore, applications. Skoon’s swappable batteries are also viable for use in land-based applications such as powering music festivals and construction sites. This variety in application creates the capacity for batteries to be used while not in demand by marine vessels.
As the Skoon idea grew into a genuine possibility, Peter Paul got to work on the concept and studying the market independently. He knew that in order to get the business off the ground, he wanted a potential partner with an existing product on which to apply his theory and release it in a traditional marketplace.
“Given our aspirations for application and expansion,” he says, “we decided that Damen was an ideal partner. We could learn a lot from Damen’s experience and expertise, while Damen ships fitted with Skoonboxes could demonstrate proof-of-concept.” Furthermore, Damen’s seniority in the market and established reputation could help the company achieve exposure, which would create opportunities to grow Skoon’s networks and stakeholder connections.
For Damen, the partnership with Skoon creates further opportunity to add value for the customer in the shape of battery-compatible vessels straight off the production line, providing an easy way to meet upcoming emissions regulations and benefit from the clean energy model by future-proofing shipping operations.
In summer 2018, Skoon and Damen agreed a formal partnership. As Damen announced the partnership in its network, Skoon immediately felt the benefit. Companies heard of the initiative and began to approach Peter Paul, curious about Skoon’s idea and service, and the value it could offer to the shipping industry. This publicity certainly helped Skoon to gain visibility and contributed to business opportunities further down the line.
Not plain sailing
The implementation wasn’t without its challenges. Replacing the fossil fuels market is a significant shift, and the Skoon initiative is the first of its kind – it’s a completely new idea to use a swappable battery.
As Peter Paul explains, “One of our biggest challenges has been to explain the new system to people in order for them to understand the premise. It requires a new way of thinking.” A bit like the switching of fuel in cars from oil-based to electricity; the car needs charging every day rather than filling up the fuel tank every few days. The planning and operations are therefore different. It took time to explain these differences to the market on a case-by-case basis.
There has been a mixed response to the idea, but now is a good time in the market to encourage this kind of change. In 2020, new IMO regulations will come into effect requiring vessels to reduce sulphur emissions from 3.5% to 0.5%. In light of this, the industry is looking for ways to lower emissions in the most cost-effective way. One option is for refineries to blend fuel oil with lower levels of sulphurous components in order to achieve a compliant fuel oil; an alternative is for ships to install exhaust gas cleaning systems to remove SOx gases after combustion.
The industry also faces pressure from EU regulations regarding Non-Road Mobile Machinery (NRMM), which aim to progressively reduce pollutant emissions and to phase out equipment with the most polluting engines. Newbuild vessels will need to be fitted with compliant engines, and many existing engines will require emissions filters.
Through choice or through compulsion, these stipulations mean many companies are looking at switching to a ‘greener’ kind of energy, be that from electric power or combined diesel-electric power. Batteries are expensive and the rate of technological development in the field could mean the hardware quickly depreciates in value, as improvements in efficiency make older hardware obsolete much more quickly.
This also means that customers will want to keep up with techno logical developments. This is possible through replacing the batteries every five years in order to ensure optimum performance. The old batteries will be given a second life on land, while the vessel continues with th e latest energy storage technology. This is good news for battery suppliers, as they can rely on regular business from Skoon – and perhaps similar companies – wanting to maintain their stock.
Skoon on the water
The first Skoonbox was ready for logistical tests in January 2019, as Skoon analysed the transfer process to see how the theory compared to its real-life application. The team followed the Skoonbox from its placement on an inland transport vessel in Rotterdam to its deposit in Hengelo. As Peter Paul reflects, “The test was very positive and gave an opportunity for us to learn how different stakeholders view the process from different perspectives. For example, container terminals look at vessel routes rather than actual vessels, and we discovered the Skoonbox had been booked on a different vessel to the test vessel, which was also headed to Hengelo.” The challenge for Skoon is therefore to make it easy for the terminals to see these systems and how the process works in order for this practice to become scalable.
This will be achieved through the use of Skoon’s software platform, which enables container terminals to organise and track the logistics of Skoonbox transfers. The software enables users to keep track of which customers have which hardware, and exactly where each Skoonbox is and where it will be needed. This automation of the administrative part of the process is the key to connecting stakeholders to one another, and through these connections, forming the routes that allow vessels to exchange batteries at each end.
Looking to the future, success relies on adoption of the system, and Skoon’s strategy is to grow port by port, incrementally making the connections that create feasibility of the model. The main focus is to increase Skoon’s presence in ports close to densely-populated areas. These locations hold the most promise as they rely on a lot of power for many other applications besides marine logistics. This means a higher chance of achieving a simple connection to a local power grid through which to charge the batteries and also the potential of access to nearby onshore applications for the batteries, such as the festivals and construction sites mentioned earlier. In this way, Skoonboxes can become part of the overall infrastructure of the location. Damen also plays a role here. In the words of Peter Paul, “Every customer Damen talks to in the world has an energy demand. Together, we can help to find a sustainable solution for their demand. Skoon can analyse the energy profile of the Damen customer and determine which type of technology can best help them to meet their needs.”
They say ‘necessity is the mother of invention’. As the sober reality of climatic changes forces us to adapt our behaviour, we are driven to find new solutions to meet our present and future challenges. With Skoon, the future looks a little greener. If the swappable battery method can help save logistics firms save money over the long term, while keeping in line with international regulations, the Skoonbox could be the silver lining in a turbulent future.
Skoon and Damen partnership
Delft University of Technology