Research Spotlight: Alternative Fuels Usage in Maritime Transportation Systems

Center for Business and Economic Research, Marshall University

Christy Risch, M.S.
Alicia Copley, M.S.
Justin Matthews, M.B.A.
Jennifer Shand, Ph.D.

School of Marine Science and Policy, University of Delaware

Edward Carr, Ph.D. candidate
James Corbett, Ph.D.

The role of inland waterways is an important component within the overall context of sustainable maritime freight movement. Coastal and inland waterways in UTC Region 3, consisting of Delaware, the District of Columbia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia, account for 11% of the value of national freight flows and 10% of the volume, represented by approximately 6% of the nation’s waterways. To consider strategies to reduce emissions along these waterways, research teams from Marshall University and the University of Delaware set about to evaluate the feasibility of implementing alternative fuels for maritime shipping in the Region 3 inland river system, focusing on the Ohio River and its tributaries.

Recognizing that the appetite of the marine fleet industry to adopt alternative fuels will be informed, in part, by both economics and technology requirements, the teams focused on two major goals:

  1. To characterize the market structure for alternative fuels including infrastructure for transport, storage and fueling, and regulatory and policy consideration and
  2. To characterize the demand for alternative fuels in maritime shipping by assessing the technological and engineering requirement for vehicle conversions as well as the environmental impacts, such as emissions, of vehicle conversions.

The teams hoped to highlight barriers to adoption and identify potential solutions and, ultimately, to support strategic and timely fleet conversion to alternative fuel usage where appropriate.

Jennifer Shand and her colleagues, Christy Risch, Alicia Copley, and Justin Matthews, all from the Center for Business and Economic Research at Marshall University, focused their efforts on the potential maritime market for natural gas and the role of refueling infrastructure, relative fuel prices, environmental regulations and technology conversion costs. Their study showed that liquefied natural gas (LNG) could be a beneficial transportation fuel choice for inland marine use in Region 3. It is perceived to be a good fit for marine engines and vessels, it is a clean burning fuel and its price is competitive due to increased supply from the Marcellus Shale.

However, the researchers caution that existing LNG supplies were not originally designed for this transportation sector and that the refueling infrastructure and supply chain would take significant time and expense to put in place. More broadly, LNG supplies must be considered within the national supply and demand scenario. Shand explains that, “there are many potential competing end users of natural gas such as the energy, transportation and chemical engineering sectors. For natural gas to be a viable marine fuel, further research is needed to understand the intricate interplay between various market motivators, such as fuel prices, equipment conversions, supply chain, and infrastructure.”

Shand’s collaborator, James Corbett at the University of Delaware, concurs. “Fleet modernization and conversion to alternative fuels are complex business decisions, including technology life, economic considerations related to cargoes and operating costs other than fuel, and infrastructure constraints. To that end, we wanted to study domestic fuel infrastructure and shallow water navigation technologies in the region and assess the emissions reductions associated with a transition to natural gas propulsion for the inland river fleet. Significant reductions in emissions could be one compelling piece of the puzzle.”

Together with graduate student, Edward Carr, they characterized vessels operating in Region 3 based on age, vessel type, and installed horsepower and analyzed vessel activity, including speed, number of voyages/trips, estimated emissions, and estimated fuel consumption. They then developed a LNG scenario to estimate emissions and fuel use for a fleet-wide switch to LNG.

Results showed that switching to LNG could result in a >90% reduction in nitrogen oxides, sulphur oxides and particle pollution, although total energy use and carbon dioxide could increase by 215%. While all of Region 3 would benefit from air quality improvements associated with a switch to LNG, the magnitude of reductions, in terms of tons of pollutant abated, would be greatest in West Virginia based on high vessel activity and emissions. Further work is required to study whether the LNG fuel supply market would co-benefit from cleaner inland marine fuel and to better characterize the costs associated with switching to LNG.

Together, the two studies lay important groundwork for technology-policy decisions regarding regional transportation initiatives. “Consider our estimates that the total capital cost of retrofitting 335 inland river vessels for LNG operation would be approximately $1.34 billion, not including dock-side infrastructure upgrades to accommodate LNG bunkering and regional liquefaction facilities,” explains Corbett. “Alternative fuels hold the promise to be important components in future transportation sustainability directives. We should be sure that we understand the nuances of freight traffic, heavy payloads such as grain, salt and sand, fuel storage issues and energy market realities before we impose policies that could negatively impact fleet operations.”

Final report