Technology’s Vital Role in Ports’ Pursuit of Green Energy Goals

the first batch of electric rtgs at the site of garden city terminal
The first batch of electric RTGs at the site of Garden City Terminal West at the Port of Savannah. The cranes are currently being assembled. COURTESY GEORGIA PORT AUTHORITY

Sustainability increasingly is at the forefront of the strategic mission of ports throughout North America, but successfully meeting ambitious green energy goals is rarely a straightforward process. It requires innovation, often in the form of sophisticated technology. That means cutting-edge technology is not only a crucial component for ports of going green — it’s absolutely necessary.

Consequently, ports are seeking out the latest technology to improve the sustainability of their operations, while also finding new efficiencies and strengthening their daily operations.

“Updating to more efficient technology and equipment can both reduce port operating costs and lower greenhouse gas emissions related to the supply chain,” said Ed McCarthy, chief operating officer of the Georgia Ports Authority.

Ports are most interested in environmental projects in the areas of electric cargo handling equipment, shore power for vessels at berth, electric grid infrastructure and hydrogen energy infrastructure — all areas with key tech-based elements, according to a survey of the AAPA Environment Committee.

“Ports are ambitiously pursuing new projects to mitigate emissions and strengthen resiliency, but they have unmet and technological needs to ensure cargo efficiency improves alongside energy security and environmental protection,” according to AAPA’s summary of the committee’s survey results.

Technology and Alternative Power

Controlling power supplies and generation will be critical to the zero-emissions marine terminals of the future, and technology will play a central part in that effort, according to Christine Houston, manager of sustainable practices for the Port of Long Beach.

“While our marine terminals will be able to self-generate solar power amounting to only a fraction of the energy they use, resilience will also be critical as the demand for power increases in our industry and in our communities,” Houston said. “We anticipate designing microgrids and other power control systems into our marine terminals. Additionally, emerging power storage systems — or even older technologies like fuel cells, but using renewable hydrogen — will enhance resilience and, hopefully, be cost-effective.”

Denis Caron, president and CEO of New Brunswick’s Port of Belledune, said using technology to reduce the port’s carbon footprint is “top of mind for us.” The port is striving to be a green energy hub. The port’s efforts include working to increase the use of hydrogen as a fuel source at the port. According to AAPA, 58% of ports have begun studying projects to serve vessels with alternative fuels.

“We are pursuing a small hydrogen production facility that would do certain volumes that then we could use in the equipment that we use, so rather than use regular fuel we could use hydrogen,” Caron said.

The Port of Belledune also announced a $25 million expansion project that includes the addition of more conveyor systems that can be used to load and unload vessels without the need for trucks, loaders and other heavy equipment that can produce high emissions.

The Vancouver Fraser Port Authority’s tech-based efforts include the use of shore power, a technology that enables ships to turn off their diesel-powered auxiliary engines and plug into British Columbia’s low-emission hydroelectric power. The Port of Vancouver became the first port in Canada and the third globally to offer shore power for cruise ships in 2009. The port authority has since expanded beyond its cruise terminal to two other terminals and offers up to a 75% discount on harbor dues for shipping lines that use shore power.

According to AAPA, 63% of ports have completed projects to electrify terminal equipment and fleet vehicles, and electrification of land-side equipment is the most common type of electrification project among ports. Among the recent technology-driven efforts of the Georgia Ports Authority is the addition of 55 hybrid cranes at the Port of Savannah.

“The hybrid machines will exclusively operate off electric battery power, with diesel generators running only to recharge batteries,” McCarthy said. “This will reduce fuel consumption by an estimated 47% compared to all-diesel machines.”

That leads to an annual reduction of 8,800 gallons of diesel per crane, or nearly 500,000 gallons annually across the Ocean Terminal fleet at the port, McCarthy said. Ultimately, the new cranes reduce emissions by half compared to conventional diesel cranes, and the hybrid engines will avoid yearly emissions of 127 tons per crane, or nearly 7,000 tons across the fleet.

Among other tech-based efforts, Griff Lynch, executive director of the Georgia Ports Authority, noted that GPA has also installed new outdoor lighting controls and fixtures across its terminals that reduce light pollution and cut energy consumption for lighting by up to 60%, and the port authority invested in 15 all-electric rubber tired gantry cranes to serve its Garden City Terminal West container yard at the Port of Savannah. Of the cranes, Lynch said, “Because they do not consume diesel, these cutting-edge machines will avoid emissions of carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxide and particulate matter.”

“GPA’s investment in more efficient equipment and continually improved infrastructure provides its customers and partners with the dual benefits of a smooth, reliable cargo flow, and a cleaner operation through reduced terminal congestion and truck idling,” Lynch said.

Among other technologies, ports will play a critical role in the development and growth of an offshore wind industry in the U.S. To that end, AAPA hosted its first-ever Offshore Wind Subcommittee meeting. The offshore wind effort is part of AAPA’s POWERS Program, which is dedicated to helping to steer sustainability investments in the port industry.

Ronan Chester, director of climate action and sustainability leadership at the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority, said the majority of port-related emissions come from diesel-powered equipment. Canada’s government has a goal of reaching net-zero emissions by 2050, and the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority’s goal is to phase out port-related emissions by 2050. In light of that, Chester said “it’s critical that we adopt new low- and zero-emission fuels and technologies at the Port of Vancouver.”

“That’s why we’ve partnered with the province of British Columbia to jointly provide $3M in funding toward the testing and demonstration of alternative fuels and technologies at the port,” Chester said.

The Vancouver Fraser Port Authority’s Low-Emission Technology Initiative is designed to take advantage of technology solutions to reduce emissions. So far, the port authority and British Columbia have helped with the testing and adoption of a variety of alternative fuels and technology in partnership with industry, Chester said. In particular, the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority teamed with Seaspan Ferries to test the use of 100% biodiesel in one of the commercial ferries that transports containers of goods between Vancouver Island and the Lower Mainland, Chester said.

“Following the success of that pilot project, Seaspan Ferries began running all six of its commercial ferries on 100% biodiesel,” Chester said.

The Vancouver Fraser Port Authority also supported Seaspan Ferries in acquiring two battery-electric-powered terminal tractors that are being used at Seaspan’s Tilbury Marine Terminal on the Fraser River.

“This work with Seaspan Ferries is a great example of how pilot projects can be a catalyst for large-scale adoption of low-emission fuels and technologies,” Chester said.

Getting the Decision Right

There are a dizzying variety of tech-based solutions aimed at sustainability and sorting through and evaluating the options is a critical task. Technology represents a major investment and commitment, often profoundly affecting how a port operates, so thorough analysis and a comprehensive decision-making process is essential.

Caron said ports must be willing to invest in both technology and expertise to pursue sustainability goals and be open to research and development efforts to explore tech options. For those efforts, Caron said partnerships are critical to exploring tech solutions on an ongoing basis. For the Port of Belledune, that means working closely with Quebec Stevedoring Limited, which operates at the port and Caron said “is very focused on using technology to build efficiencies and reduce the carbon footprint.”

“We’re a small port authority, and we need to be innovative and creative and leverage as much as we can,” Caron said. “So we have to make sure that we do that in partnership with somebody that is more knowledgeable in that area.”

seaspan ferries electric battery powered terminal tractor
Seaspan Ferries’ electric battery-powered terminal tractor, one of two that were procured with support from the Province of B.C. and the Vancouver Fraser Port AuthorityCOURTESY PORT OF VANCOUVER

Chester said there is a lot to investigate when exploring sustainability-focused tech options. “There are many criteria that must be considered when evaluating whether a new fuel or technology is the right fit for a given application, including various technical, operational, safety, and economic factors,” Chester said. “Pilot projects are an effective way to evaluate these factors because they give operators a low-risk and low-cost opportunity to familiarize themselves with new technologies without the need for a large-scale investment.”

Caron said technology’s promise has not always reached its practicality, so it pays not to become entranced by something eye-catching that will not yet add sufficient value.

“Sometimes we’re looking for a technology, but it’s not properly developed, or it’s not at the stage where it meets our needs yet,” Caron said. “There’s also always the risk of being the first user and making those types of investments.”

Caron said another challenge of evaluating technology is working with experts or consultants who might be more interested in making a sale than fulfilling the port’s needs. He said that makes it particularly important to define what a port’s true needs are, whether it is considering off-the-shelf technology or something customized to its operations.

“That can be a challenge for a smaller type of port like ours to do,” Caron said. “We really are at the mercy at times of finding the right people that can advise us properly, so the partnerships or relationships that we have, such as with the stevedoring company, are really important to us and we leverage them as much as we can.”

Green-based port technology projects carry high price tags, and the AAPA survey shows that $50 billion of green infrastructure projects are planned at ports over the next 10 years, making government assistance vital. Houston said that California’s ports have had the advantage of generous state funding to support their testing of new technologies that support sustainability efforts. That has been key to evaluating technologies and analyzing their fit and effectiveness.

“Port of Long Beach has received grant funding to demonstrate zero-emissions cargo-handling equipment, as well as a grant to develop and test a renewable-powered microgrid,” Houston said. “Additionally, the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles provide shared funding for emerging technologies through their joint Technology Advancement Program. It’s critical that our marine terminal operators join us in these grant projects to test new equipment and provide feedback for the benefit of the manufacturers and other operators.”

McCarthy said the Georgia Ports Authority evaluates new technology and equipment through the assessment of several key factors to weigh if they both are a good fit and will deliver the energy benefits that the GPA is seeking.

“Consideration begins with an assessment of the technology’s compatibility with the port’s current infrastructure and operations,” McCarthy said. “GPA engineering and operations teams review a technology’s potential for integration into existing systems, along with its power requirements. Reliability and performance, including maintenance requirements and expected lifespan are all examined as part of a comprehensive life cycle analysis. An assessment of energy efficiency and cost effectiveness all contribute to making an informed decision.”