On a Dutch shipyard, the first of 11 river barges are taking shape, which will be fully electrically powered. The futuristic looking ships are going to be the world’s first vessels with carbon-neutral batteries, and will replace many thousands of diesel-burning trucks. Moreover, they could be operated crewless in only two years from now.
Belgium and the Netherlands alone possess nearly two thirds of all the inland barges in Europe. Small wonder that this little corner of the continent is a hotbed of shipping innovation. This year the Dutch company Port-Liner BV will take delivery of five of the world’s first emission-free electrical ships in the world. The vessels, already dubbed the “Teslas of the canals," are going to operate between terminals in the South of Holland and Antwerp, Belgium.
Coming in August, the first of the 172-foot long container barges will set sail from the builder’s shipyard to Antwerp, one of the sponsors of the project. Its power will come from a battery the size of one standard 20-foot container, which will be charged on shore by energy provider Eneco. Eneco sources its energy from renewables (wind and solar), so the ships will be running on 100 percent green electricity. One charge will keep the ship running for 15 hours.
Another six barges, each 361 feet long, will follow in the wake of the first series. These will have four container-sized batteries, will run for 35 hours on one charge and will be able to carry up to 270 TEU. Because the electric vessels have no engine room, they have up to 8 percent extra space available on board for cargo.
Port-Liner’s CEO Ton van Meegen says, “There are some 7,300 inland vessels across Europe. Over 5,000 of them are owned by entrepreneurs in Belgium and the Netherlands. We could build over 500 electric barges a year." Thanks to the modular design of the power boxes, existing barges can easily be retrofitted to run on electricity, too. “That is a big boost for the industry’s green energy credentials," adds Van Meegen.
The smaller barges will have a load capacity of 425 metric tons in bulk goods plus 24 TEU, (minus one, being the battery). In theory, they could carry one layer more, but the low height of a number of bridges over Dutch waterways puts a limit to the number of containers that can be stacked.
The operating costs of the barges are estimated to be comparable to traditional diesel-driven barges, but the bonus for the environment is considerable. The five smaller electric barges will replace around 23,000 diesel-burning trucks and thus relieve a lot of strain from the congested roads in the Low Countries. The second batch of six larger vessels is estimated to reduce the annual CO2 emission by about 18,000 metric tons.
And this is not where innovation aboard the new Port-Liners stops. The ships are fully prepared to operate crewless in the near future. Tests are under way and the infrastructure of the Dutch and Belgian waterways is being prepared for this other breakthrough.