The Prius of the Sea? Meet the Future of Cargo Ships

Takepart.comMay 10, 2013

You probably don’t think of the shipping industry as being culturally “plugged in,” but it’s about to be—in more ways than one.

In January, California will become the first place in the world to require container fleets that dock at its major ports to shut off their diesel engines and use electricity for 50 percent of their visits.

It’s estimated that 41 percent of a ship’s emissions come while they are at berth, closest to where people live. Shore power for cargo ships would eliminate almost all at-berth emissions and is said to be the equivalent of taking 33,000 cars off the roads.



The Port of Long Beach, which began installing electricity at a handful of berths a few years ago and has 12 more under construction, is spending $200 million on the transition. The Port held a special Shore Power Summit on May 6 where a number of issues related to the changeover were discussed.

Renee Moilanen, an environmental specialist associate with the Port of Long Beach, explained that in 2005, the Port became an environmental leader through their adoption of a green port policy that set high-level goals for how to reduce port-related pollution.

A year later, they put a clean air action plan in place that set more specific strategies on how to reduce pollution by 2023, including aggressive emission-reduction targets: Reduce nitrogen oxides by 59 percent, sulfur oxides by 93 percent, and diesel particulate matter (DPM) by 77 percent. The latter is of particular importance since DPM has known health risks.

Moilanen added that the shipping industry had made significant private financial investments. Lee Peterson, spokesperson for the Port of Long Beach, tells TakePart that, “The shipping industry provided the Port with information on the cost [originally estimated to be between $500,000 and $1 million per vessel] to add shore power equipment to a container ship. And as one shipping line, Matson Navigation, noted, their expense was even higher: $1.7 million per vessel.”

Lee Lampland, who is Matson’s Manager of New Construction, spoke at the Shore Summit and explained that starting in 2007 Matson tasked their engineering department with putting in systems that would meet California’s new regulations.

While it will be easy to do so with new construction, it’s more complicated with older ships where they have to find room for the equipment and put in a lot of wiring. And Lampland noted that Matson has five different classes of vessels, so the plug in locations can vary per ship and the different designs are dictated by the power load of each ship.

After a 12 month design and regulatory approval period, a 12 month equipment delivery lead time, and one month shipyard installation, all eight of Matson’s ships were plug-in ready.

Lampland added that he’d been asked if Matson can recover these costs. “When you look at a lot of green issues, you can’t apply the economic basis,” he said.

“It’s a reduction of emissions and what value do you put on that? So from that standpoint it is, but if you took a pure economic standpoint it’s not recoverable. It’s an outlay by Matson that they were glad to do to in complying with their emissions standards in California.”

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Lawrence Karol is a writer and editor who lives with his dog, Mike. He is a former Gourmet staffer and enjoys writing about design, food, travel and lots of other stuff. @WriteEditDream | Email Lawrence |