The shipping sector is turning to high-tech wings for faster decarbonization

The huge wing in a corner of the Scottish port town of Hunterston doesn’t look like part of a ship, but the 20-metre-long device could be one of the shipping industry’s weapons to combat carbon emissions.

When the wing, called FastRig, is bolted to a ship’s decks and sits upright, it acts like a sail that catches the wind. Smart Green Shipping (SGS), the company that developed the device, and some of the world’s largest ship owners believe it can provide clean energy to supplement ship engines.

The International Maritime Organization, the UN’s maritime body, is scheduled to introduce new, stricter emissions rules to come into effect from 2027. Shipping is currently responsible for approximately 3 percent of global CO2 emissions per year.

Di Gilpin, the founder and managing director of SGS, says FastRig stands out among the many efforts to reduce CO2 emissions from shipping because its technology has been developed in particularly close collaboration with shipowners.

The company’s backers include the bulk shipping division of Japan’s Mitsui OSK Lines, one of the world’s largest operators of ships transporting raw materials such as coal and iron ore. Denmark’s Ultrabulk, another major shipping company, and Drax, the British energy producer, are also shareholders.

SGS expects to be able to reduce the fuel consumption of ships by as much as 30 percent. That’s more than some of the other wind energy technologies currently being developed: a six-month trial by commodities trader Cargill on a bulk carrier fitted with sails from another developer yielded an average emissions savings of 14 percent.

What FastRig will look like when attached to a ship
When the wing, called FastRig, is bolted to a ship’s decks and sits upright, it acts like a sail that catches the wind. © FastRig

Among other means being tested to reduce shipping emissions are the use of methanol, ammonia and hydrogen as fuel. But in the absence of something that produced no emissions at all, Gilpin said FastRig represented a crucial advance for the industry.

The question is whether SGS can convince enough ship operators to buy or lease the company’s products. The start-up expects that the system will be attractive to ship owners and possibly also to companies that hire ships for the long term. The wings could be temporarily bolted to the deck of the ship, for the duration of a charter.

While she declined to estimate the final price for each FastRig, Gilpin said each wingsail should pay for itself through fuel savings. The goal, she said, was to have the costs paid off within four years.

“After that, the energy extracted from the wind is free at the time of use,” she added.

Equity investors have put £3.5m into SGS to date, on top of the £5m the company has received in public sector grants. It is about to launch a fundraising round to seek a further £6m of investment and value the company at £25m.

Arsenio Dominguez, Secretary General of the IMO, stressed that the organization is including wind energy among the technologies it is considering as a way to reduce the sector’s emissions.

“We are technology agnostic when it comes to all the options out there,” says Dominguez. “Wind drive is one thing.”

Arsenio Dominguez, Secretary General of the International Maritime Organization,
Arsenio Dominguez, secretary general of the International Maritime Organization, stressed that the organization is including wind energy among the technologies it is considering as a way to reduce the sector’s emissions. © Charlie Bibby/FT

However, Jan Rindbo, CEO of Norden, a major dry bulk carrier operator in Copenhagen, said the technology would only make financial sense for his company if stricter regulations were introduced. This could include a tax on CO2 emissions from ships.

“If you add a carbon tax, it’s a technology that could have some significance,” Rindbo said.

The key moment in SGS’s genesis, according to Gilpin, occurred in 2015, when she met a group of shipowners at the Paris Climate Conference who were all concerned about the risks of buying ships that rely on new, untested green technologies.

In addition to carbon-free fuels for internal combustion engines, some naval architects favor powering ships with nuclear reactors – a technology used in some submarines and aircraft carriers, as well as Russian icebreakers. What the ship owners wanted were solutions that could be retrofitted, Gilpin said.

The prototype FastRig was set up in Hunterston, 30 miles south-west of Glasgow, so shipowners could see tests on the device for reassurance about how it will work.

In September, four FastRigs are to be mounted on the Pacific Grebe, a ship used to transport spent fuel and other highly radioactive material around the world. The ship – owned by a department of the UK Nuclear Decommissioning Authority – is one of the few eligible ships to fly the British flag: funding from UK Innovation and Science specified that the first test installation had to be on a British ship.

The Smart Green Shipping FastRig, which was in a horizontal position due to high winds, at the company's test site in Hunterston
The Smart Green Shipping FastRig, which was in a horizontal position due to high winds, at the company’s test site in Hunterston © Robert Ormerod/FT

“In many ways it is ideal because it is the most demanding ship in the world in terms of safe and rapid installation,” Gilpin said.

FastRig is designed to address many of the concerns of owners and mariners, Gilpin said. The devices are now retractable after owners raised questions about whether FastRigs could interfere with loading and unloading at ports.

They also wondered how long a ship would be out of action without earning revenue for FastRig installation. The devices are made of relatively light aluminum, so that only minimal and time-consuming drilling into the decks of a ship is required. Installation time for different ships would vary, Gilpin said, in part because larger ships would need more wingsails.

The technology would be marketed mainly to dry bulk carrier and tanker operators, as these were the main ship types with sufficient clear deck space for the sails.

“The design was driven by the needs of the market, and not by what we could achieve,” Gilpin said. “It was crucial that shipowners had a seat at the table.”

Rindbo said he remained “skeptical” about the idea of ​​putting sails on ships. He pointed out that bulk carriers and tankers acted in a similar way to taxis, traveling anywhere in the world where customers needed freight. That made it difficult to predict how a new propulsion method would work in different places.

However, Stuart Nicoll, director of Maritime Strategies International (MSI), a London-based consultancy, emphasized that wind energy has clear benefits given the steady growth in taxes on ship emissions. Since the start of the year, ships entering EU ports have been required to pay for emissions during their journey under the bloc’s emissions trading system.

“The context is that people need to do something now to reduce fuel consumption,” Nicoll said. “There is a lot of interest in small victories.”

In addition to advanced electronic controls to optimize the use of valves and other controls, the company is developing technology that allows a ship to better utilize wind energy by deviating slightly from the most direct route, Gilpin said. The final savings could still be higher than the expected 30 percent, she suggested.

“We could improve that,” she said, adding: “This is a first iteration.”