The image of an old wooden junk with orange sails is ubiquitous in Hong Kong lore. It's on matchbooks, advertisements and postcards in this famous port city, but the traditional wind-powered Chinese boat cruising Victoria Harbor is a rare site these days. The reality is a bit less picturesque: the second busiest port in the world is filled with diesel-powered ships, ferries and fishing boats that belch toxins into the infamously polluted Hong Kong skyline.
That could be changing. Early next year, four new solar hybrid ferries will set sail in the Hong Kong harbor, using solar collectors to power an electric engine that will shuttle Hong Kong Jockey Club members to the Kau Sai Chau Public Golf Course. It's a modest start to cleaning up the city's smog, but if the ferries' owners at the Jockey Club, a nonprofit that holds a monopoly on gambling in Hong Kong and runs the golf course, demonstrate that the solar-powered ferries actually save the organization money, private businesses are likely to jump on board. The Australian company Solar Sailor, which designed the new ferries, claims that if oil prices remain high, the boats will start saving the Jockey Club money in only two years.
With a dense population near the city's ports, the problem of shipping-related emissions is particularly acute in Hong Kong, where 60% of people say they've suffered health problems because of air pollution. But anyone living near a shipping lane is at risk. An estimated 60,000 people die annually from global shipping emissions, according James Corbett, a professor of marine policy at the University of Delaware, who along with five others calculated the concentration of pollutants due to ships and then estimated the number of extra deaths caused by the additional exposure. If nothing is done to reduce emissions, that number could rise to 87,000 as soon as 2012, according to a 2009 report co-written by Corbett. Since six of the seven busiest ports in the world are in Asia, the health burden falls largely on port cities like Singapore, Hong Kong and Shanghai.
Though shipping is still the most resource-efficient way to move containers, large ships use some of the dirtiest fuel on the planet. Ships' bunker fuel is a thick, black sludge leftover from the refining process and has about 2,000 times the sulfur of regular diesel fuel. When bunker fuel burns, it releases a host of toxins, including sulfur oxides and nitrogen oxides, that can lead to respiratory problems and acid rain. Now a better understanding of the health impact of shipping and commercial boats combined with high oil prices and tighter general pollution restrictions is sparking what could be the biggest revolution in industrial boating since the introduction of the marine diesel engine in 1903. In October 2008, the U.N.'s International Maritime Organization (IMO) introduced a gradual phase-in of emissions restrictions, lowering individual boats' sulfur oxide emissions, which contribute to respiratory illnesses and exacerbate existing heart and lung problems, near coastlines 900% by 2020. Industry insiders expect the IMO will also cap greenhouse-gas emissions. "If the shipping industry was a country, it would be the sixth largest emitter of greenhouse gases," says Fanta Kamakate, a program director at the International Council on Clean Transportation.
Hong Kong is not the first city to have green ships. Captain Cook Cruises in Sydney's harbor has been running a hybrid Solar Sailor ship since 2000. In Berlin, the mayor christened a solar ferry in July, and Shanghai will have its own Solar Sailor ferry by the start of the 2010 World Expo. Founded in 1999, the company's innovative designs won the Australian Design Award of the Year, and Solar Sailor became the first Australian company recognized by the prestigious Tech Museum Awards. The inspiration for the solar sails, says Robert Dane, CEO of Solar Sailor, was ancient arthropods. "Insects first evolved wings as solar collectors," Dane says, but the primitive wings could also catch the wind and blow them away from predators.
Large container ships are also beginning to utilize the sun to help power them across the world's oceans. Cosco, China's biggest shipping company, has inked an agreement with Solar Sailor for giant solar sails to be retrofitted on some of Cosco's tanker ships. The solar wings would be almost 115 ft. long, and Solar Sailor expects the wings to start saving Cosco money after only four years. The Japanese company NYK Line launched the M/V Auriga Leader in 2008, the world's first cargo ship partly run on solar power. With 328 solar panels covering its upper deck, the ship produces enough electricity to continuously power 10 homes and can be used to transport 6,400 cars at a time. Though the ship still primarily relies on bunker fuel, it's a step toward the company's goal of zero emissions by 2050. NYK Line already has its next green transport in mind: the Super Eco Ship 2030, a concept ship that uses solar sails to lower CO2 emissions 69%.
Even the U.S. Navy is making greener warships. On Oct. 24, the U.S.S. Makin Island dubbed the Navy's Prius was formally commissioned. It was built with a gas turbine that drives an electric generator, and the Navy says these engine advances will save nearly $250 million in fuel costs over the vessel's lifetime. On its first trip from Mississippi to California, it consumed 900,000 gallons less fuel than a conventional warship.
When it comes to shipping pollution, the world is all in the same boat and right now that boat runs on toxic sludge but with continued innovation and tighter regulations, the planet's blue seas could soon be filled with green ships. Corbett predicts that if the new IMO standards are implemented, then the shipping industry could avoid contributing to more than 40,000 deaths in a single year. It would be a dramatic drop, but the ship engines would still be allowed to emit more sulfur dioxide than trucks and cars in the U.S. Solar Sailor's Dane sees the shipping industry's evolution away from oil as inevitable even obvious: "Why go back to the land to refuel a boat when the energy is out there in the waves, sun and wind?"