Who Will Drive Future Fuels Demand – the Customer or the Supplier?

September 4, 2023

The pace of change in the bunker industry is accelerating rapidly.

Where in the past, residual fuel oil remained the dominant bunker grade for decades, with only relatively minor adjustments to its viscosity and sulfur content, a wide range of new fuels is now emerging.

With the IMO now having announced that shipping’s GHG emissions will be reduced to net zero by about 2050, little doubt remains over whether these new fuels will come to overtake fossil bunkers in time.

Shipowners that find their solution to the decarbonisation puzzle, and implement their strategy early, will reap the rewards in the years to come.

But the key question hanging over the industry is, what drivers are needed for a viable market in the various alternative fuels to emerge at ports around the world?

Biofuels

The emergence of a biofuel bunker market will be – and to some extent has already been – an easier prospect than for other alternatives.

As a drop-in replacement for conventional bunker fuels, biofuel blends have significant advantages. Because they can run in today’s engines with only minor adjustments, they need little in the way of investment by either the supplier or customer; new ships and new delivery infrastructure are not needed.

When taking into account the full lifecycle of these fuels, they can deliver major GHG emission savings compared to fossil fuels, while remaining largely familiar in their chemical properties and quality considerations.

Shipowners have already been carrying out trials of biofuel blends at locations around the world to test their performance in marine engines, and little in the way of objections have emerged so far.

With demand already largely in place, the key challenge for this market is the development of supply. Therefore, biofuel suppliers will play a pivotal role in ensuring that biofuel blends become a widely adopted alternative fuel.

Suppliers for the maritime industry must understand the variety and suitability of feedstocks, their availability and compliance with IMO, EU and other regulations, and to develop competitive supply chains and the last-mile delivery of these low-carbon fuels to the relevant ports.

LNG

The history of LNG’s use as a marine fuel provides a clear picture of how suppliers and their customers working together can develop an alternative fuel’s supply chain and bring its market to maturity.

Gas-powered ships have been in operation for several decades now, but it has only been over the past ten years or so that LNG has emerged as a prominent alternative bunker fuel.

Ten years ago, presentations at marine fuel conferences on the advent of LNG bunkering invariably brought up the ‘chicken and egg problem’: the question of which should come first, demand for this alternative fuel or supply.

The issue at question was whether shipowners would consider purchasing gas-fuelled vessels before suppliers set in place LNG bunker delivery infrastructure, and vice-versa.

In the end, the chicken and egg made a simultaneous appearance. The biggest single event driving the emergence of the LNG bunker market was the announcement from French container line CMA CGM and energy producer Total that they would work together to develop both supply and demand.

In early 2017, the two French firms started to sign multi-year deals for LNG bunker supply, at the same time as CMA CGM was starting to make large gas-powered ship orders. The size of the arrangement was large enough to make it worth Total building a delivery vessel even if it would only end up serving CMA CGM’S boxships.

For this market, the next stage will be to develop similar deals for bio- and synthetic LNG. The ships running on and delivering fossil LNG today will be able to use these fuels already, but new production facilities will be needed.

Methanol and Ammonia

If supply chains are established effectively, green methanol and ammonia have great potential. These fuels require production facilities, tankers to transport them, delivery infrastructure and new ships capable of burning them.

An approach similar to that taken with LNG will be needed: producers and consumers need to make deals guaranteeing both supply and demand at around the same time.

Methanol is further along this path than ammonia. As it remains liquid at ambient temperature and pressure, existing storage facilities and delivery vessels require much lower retrofit costs and time to be prepared to carry methanol.

Building a dual-fuelled vessel capable of burning both methanol and conventional bunkers, rather than LNG or ammonia, should also be cheaper.

The approach of buyers collaborating with sellers to develop the market is already bearing fruit for methanol as a marine fuel, with container shipping company AP Moller-Maersk signing supply deals with a wide range of producers at the same time as ordering ships capable of methanol propulsion. Since these deals were announced, several more shipping companies have felt the confidence to order methanol-fuelled tonnage, and data from classification society DNV show methanol-fuelled ship orders have outnumbered those of gas-powered tonnage for several months over the past year.

The ammonia bunker market is at an earlier stage, with much more research and development work into how to handle ammonia’s toxicity needed first. Here, an intervention from local regulators and port authorities may be needed before the market can take off: a declaration from an authority the size of Singapore’s MPA that ammonia bunkering can be safely carried out in the city-state’s waters would do much to kick-start this market’s development.

But ammonia remains widely assumed to become one of the largest marine energy carriers towards the middle of this century, despite its toxicity and the higher infrastructure costs associated with its chemical properties; the lack of carbon in its molecule remains highly attractive, a property not shared by any of the other alternative fuel options.

Conclusion

Ultimately, it’s not going to be the chicken or the egg that comes first with the more expensive alternative bunker fuel markets: the regulations precede everything.

With the IMO’s 2050 net zero target and the EU’s emissions trading system and FuelEU Maritime regulation now adopted, the shipping industry has been given clear instructions to extricate itself from fossil fuel consumption.

The race is now on for producers and consumers to work in tandem to develop the bunker markets of the future. Those that move fastest to guarantee supply and demand for the new fuels will reap the largest rewards.