Sail Power Is Making a Comeback

By: Anneken Tappe · May 24, 2024 · Reading Time: 3 minutes

The global economy relies, in many ways, on shipping. But the industry isn’t exactly clean when it comes to energy standards: Shipping tankers run on heavy fuel oil, one of the most polluting energy sources out there. As the industry will also have to cut emissions, could it be ripe for innovation?

Revamping Old Tech

The International Maritime Organization (IMO) has set ambitious climate targets for international shipping activities, aiming to reduce total greenhouse gas emissions by at least 70% by 2040. Now some companies are turning to a technology of the past: sails.

These are not your great-great-grandfather’s sailing ships. Several emerging companies are putting new twists on this age-old technology.

Finnish startup Norsepower helps vessels install Flettner rotors, or vertical cylinders that spin as air passes along them. These sails create air pressure capable of moving ships forward. In some cases, they can reduce fuel consumption by 25% or more, according to the company.

Another company, Spain-based bound4blue, installs suction sails — a middle ground between traditional wind sails and rotor sails that can generate up to seven times more force than conventional sails. Back in the Nordics, Swedish venture Oceanbird is developing stiff, retractable plastic sails.

Finally, a wind-powered carrier vessel owned by Mitsubishi (MSBHF) completed a six-month maiden voyage in March, assisted by so-called WindWings. These massive wind propulsion fixtures, developed by U.K. startup BAR Technologies and food giant Cargill, are reminiscent of airplane wings and operate in tandem with engines. That way the voyage saved up to 11 metric tons of fuel a day, according to Cargill.

Sailing the Seas

Heightened environmental concerns and increasing fuel costs could continue to drive innovation in sail technology over the coming years, which could be interesting for investors. However, these solutions often carry steep installation costs, which could make shipping more expensive and trickle down to raise prices for consumers.

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