The Intertubes are absolutely humming with news that the leading global mining and shipping giant Vale is getting into the wind-powered shipping business. The company is staking its claim to five tall, tilt-able, cylindrical devices that look like smokestacks but are actually sails. That’s not such a big deal, but if all goes according to plan, the company’s high profile could help motivate other shippers to adopt new wind power technology, and since the shipping industry is a leading carbon emitter, that’s a big deal, as in bigly big.
What Is This New Wind Power Technology Of Which You Speak?
The boat in question is a Very Large Ore Carrier, which Vale has chartered to carry its very large shipments of mining stuff.
That’s a lot of stuff. Even if nobody else in the shipping business is interested in wind power in the form of tall, tilt-able, cylindrical sails, Vale can pack a lot of decarbonization punch all on its own.
The company bills itself as the “world’s largest producer of iron ore, pellets, and nickel,” and that is significant from a sustainability perspective because iron is emerging as a potential option for electric vehicle batteries, and nickel also has some energy storage potential.
That’s over and above Vale’s considerable interest in the copper area, copper being an essential ingredient in the renewable energy soup, including wind turbines of course.
VLOCs are new to the CleanTechnica radar, but our friends over at Zey Marine can fill in the blanks. Vale is so big that it gets a special name for ships that it owns or charters:
“Valemax-class ships are very large ore carriers (VLOC) owned or chartered by the Brazilian mining company Vale S.A. (thus the name). This 68-ship fleet carries iron ore from Brazil to European and Asian ports. Valemax is the largest bulk carrier class in terms of DWT. Valemax-class ships have a capacity ranging from 380,000 to 400,000 tons deadweight. They are also amongst the longest ships of any type currently in service.”
Zey Marine also notes that the most famous Valemax ship is MS Ore Brasil, which weighs in at 362 meters in length and 65 meters wide.
“She has seven cargo holds with a combined gross volume of 219,980 cubic meters and a net tonnage of 67,993. Her deadweight tonnage is 402,347 tons. MS Ore Brasil carries iron ore from Brazil to China along the Cape route around South Africa,” Zey Marine adds for those of you keeping score at home.
Cargo Ships Need More Wind Power
Decarbonizing whole fleets of cargo ships would be a key milestone in the race to save the planet from catastrophic global warming, and that’s where the tilt-able sails come in.
To be clear, the sails in question are not sufficient to decarbonize a VLOC all the way. However, as an auxiliary power source they could add enough renewable energy punch to help wean the shipping industry out of its fossil fuel habit.
Not much has gained traction in the rigid sail area, though, which is another reason why the Vale’s foray into wind power is significant.
How Does It Work?
The new sails were developed by the firm Norsepower under the name Rotor Sails. Our friends over at Rocky Mountain Institute put Norsepower on the CleanTechnica radar back in 2015, with this handy explainer:
“The Norsepower Rotor Sail Solution is a modernized version of the Flettner rotor—a spinning vertical cylinder that harnesses wind power to propel a ship. The rotor generates thrust for the same reason that a spinning baseball curves through the air after it’s thrown—the Magnus effect. When air moves across a rotating body, it exerts a force perpendicular to the direction of the air.
“In favorable wind conditions, Norsepower Rotor Sails allow the vessel to throttle back the main engines, supplying the power needed to maintain speed and voyage time while reducing fuel and emissions.”
Norsepower estimates that its Rotor Sails can reduce fossil energy consumption by 5-20%. To sweeten the pot, the sails can be retrofitted onto existing ships with minimal down time, which is an important consideration for fleet managers looking to squeeze maximum working hours from their boats.
Additionally, Norsepower has ensured that cargo ships outfitted with Rotor Sails can still ply their usual routes, regardless of overhead wires or bridges or whatever else, due to the tilting feature.
Norsepower Chipping Away At Shipping Emissions
For the Vale project, Norsepower has installed five Rotor Sails on a new 325,000 deadweight tonnage VLOC under construction in China under the ownership of the firm Pan Ocean Ship Management, which has hundreds of ships under its umbrella.
That’s a big step up for Norsepower. The company launched in 2014 and only had three Rotor Sail projects under its belt as of 2019. That seems to have been a pivotal year, because in 2019 Norsepower announced an agreement with the global firm Wärtsilä, with the goal of scaling up globally.
Pan Ocean’s new wind power ship could be just the first trickle in a flood of orders for Norsepower. Having closely analyzed the ship’s routes under the Vale charter, Norsepower estimates that it could boost energy efficiency by 8% and reduce carbon emissions by up to 3,400 tons annually.
Norsepower also points out that the all-important EEDI (Energy Efficiency Design Index) for the shipping industry will motivate firms like Vale and Pan Ocean to scramble for solutions, so it looks like Rotor Sails are in the right place at the right time
Baby Steps For Decarbonization
If all goes according to plan, Vale estimates that it could install Rotor Sails on at least 40% of its fleet, which would translate into a 1.5% reduction in the company’s annual emissions related to maritime transport.
That may seem minuscule, but the cumulative impact adds up, especially in combination with Vale’s other fuel efficiency initiatives. Vale’s seal of approval on new cutting edge clean tech could also have a ripple effect that accelerates renewable energy adoption across the shipping sector.
As for Vale’s mining operations, that’s a whole ‘nother can of worms. The company is still cleaning up after a 2019 disaster in Brazil, in which 270 people were killed when a dam holding mine tailings collapsed.
The company does have a head start on mine decarbonization through its hydropower operations, but it still has a long way to go in other areas. A 2015 wind power and solar project was aimed only at providing electricity for a remote communication installation. Otherwise, Vale still appears to be in the planning stages for scaling up and distributing renewable energy throughout its operations, so stay tuned for more on that.
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Photo: Cargo ship equipped with Rotor Sails courtesy of Vale.