Now that oil is back in the news with a vengeance, exacting the price for our dependency on both the fuel and the money to be made from it, I kept thinking about this piece from earlier in the year about a revolutionary move of the leading container shipping company.
"Slow Trip Across Sea Aids Profit and Environment," Elisabeth Rosenthal, NY Times, 2/16/10.The world-spanning Danish line Maersk, socked with $145 barrels of oil in 2008, cut their fuel consumption by almost one third with a daring manuever: cutting the top cruising speed of its ships by half.
"Reducing engine load dramatically decreases fuel consumption," a Maersk presentation explains, because, "fuel consumption and CO2 emissions increase exponentially with speed." Maersk was able to cut their fuel needs on major routes by as much as 30 percent, a major savings. But just by that, the company also managed an equal cut in their ships’ emissions of greenhouse gases.
On many routes, it doesn't even take any more time(!) — cut-off, transit and arrival schedules remain the same since technology now allows for a better distribution of speed, thus gaining back what had been wasted "hurry up and wait" time.
(Of course, when you think of it, this isn't really an entirely new principle to any of us, because we've all heard from way back that driving at 55 gives you the best fuel efficiency and gets you there just some minutes later. But that doesn't mean some of us aren't still looking for the chance to really open 'er up anyway.)
"Where the previous focus has been on 'What will it cost?' and 'Get it to me as fast as possible,' " Maersk’s director of environmental sustainability explains in the NYT story, there's now a third dimension: 'What’s the CO2 footprint?' " Maersk's pitch to shippers includes the offer that, " We will significantly reduce your carbon footprint," claiming that, "Super Slow Steaming alone easily reduces a customer’s whole annual supply chain by 13%."
"Slowing down from high speeds reduces emissions because it reduces drag and friction as ships plow through the water," says the NYT's story, and points out that the same holds true for airplanes, which could easily reduce their emissions by taking it slower, say by 10%.
This is an especially welcome innovation at a time when worldwide consumption is growing so fast; the container ship trade grew by eight times between 1985 and 2007, especially long-haul shipments of goods from Asia. Maersk says their fleet of 545 ships makes a port call every thirteen minutes. So their shift to Slo-Mo has an impact, even more so as a gauntlet thrown to their competition — not, God forbid, because it's the Right Thing To Do or anything, but because it'll save them money, too.
Hey, whatever it takes.
But here's another excellent and really intriguing example of how progress doesn't always come from charging ahead — maybe just as often, it can be achieved by dropping back a step.
• Maersk vessel photo page
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