Royal Dutch Shell Plc, General Electric Co. and a company co-founded by T. Boone Pickens are planning investments in natural-gas-powered shipping as record U.S. output spurs the merchant fleet to use a new fuel.
Clean Energy Fuels Corp., which Pickens helped start, will begin construction next year on the country’s first fuel station for cargo ships running on liquefied natural gas in Jacksonville, Fla. Shell said in March it’s planning LNG plants for the Great Lakes and Gulf Coast. GE, evaluating five locations, says the U.S. will need 50 to 100 small-scale plants for ships, trains, mining and trucks by 2025, each costing $50 million to $150 million.
“We truly believe the age of gas is here,” said Mike Hosford, GE’s general manager for unconventional resources, based in Houston. “The industry needs bigger players to step in and start helping to build out the infrastructure.”
While the maritime industry still relies on oil-based products for almost all its fuel, tighter emissions rules and abundant natural gas are convincing ship owners to switch. The global fleet of 42 LNG-powered ships will almost triple by next year and increase 42-fold to almost 1,800 vessels by 2020, according to DNV GL, the largest company certifying the merchant fleet for safety.
Natural gas output in the U.S., the world’s largest producer, rose to 2.198 trillion cubic feet in August, the highest since at least 1973, according to the latest Energy Department data. Marketed production will expand 1.1 percent to 71.03 billion cubic feet a day in 2014, the department estimates.
The first LNG-fueled ship, a Norwegian ferry built in 2000, is one of 42 in operation worldwide, out of about 60,000 merchant vessels, according to DNV GL. Most are small ferries and vessels that shuttle supplies to offshore oil platforms. Tankers hauling LNG in world trade have long used it for fuel through a process known as boil-off.
Thirty-seven new LNG-fueled ships and two conversions are on order, scheduled for delivery in the next three years. By 2020, 1,068 new vessels will be built and 600 to 700 will be converted to run on the fuel, DNV GL says.
The biggest vessels ordered so far are two container ships for delivery in 2015 and 2016 for TOTE Inc., which runs services between the U.S. and Puerto Rico and Alaska.
“Within the next five to 10 years, LNG will become the main fuel source for all marine transportation,” said Anthony Chiarello, TOTE’s president and chief executive officer, who says he gets at least half a dozen calls a week from other owners asking about the fuel.
Some ship owners are waiting for more harbors to add equipment, and gas providers want to see more vessels that can be customers, according to MAN Diesel & Turbo SE, the largest maker of ship engines. Depending on infrastructure, prices and environmental regulations, there could be as many as 2,000 LNG-powered vessels consuming 15 million metric tons by 2020, the Augsburg, Germany-based company estimates.
That would be equal to about 8 percent of current ship consumption of heavy fuel oil known as bunker. Global bunker demand will rise 2.1 percent to 193 million tons in 2014, according to JBC Energy GmbH, a Vienna-based research company.
Ship owners started switching to lower-sulfur diesel from bunker in northwest Europe and North America because of national and international anti-pollution rules phased in since 2005. LNG cuts sulfur emissions by 90 to 95 percent and also releases less carbon dioxide and nitrogen oxide, according to DNV GL.