China spoils launch of world’s first electric cargo ship by using it to haul coal

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The good news is that China has launched the world’s first all-electric cargo ship. The bad news is that it is being used to haul coal.

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The good news is that China, the world leader in electric vehicle production and use, has launched the world’s first all-electric, 2,200-ton cargo ship. The bad news is that the groundbreaking vessel is being used to haul coal.

Since shipping is poorly regulated and runs almost entirely on heavy fuel oil, the trillion-dollar industry is a major polluter. Major ports are notorious for having unhealthy air.

And even though the industry generates some 3 percent of global carbon pollution, the 2015 Paris climate agreement doesn’t even cover shipping, since it targets emissions by nations, not transport between them.

That leaves much of the job of cleaning up the industry to individual companies. So it should be a welcome moment that China’s Guangzhou Shipyard International has launched “the world’s first electric ship with a capacity” of 2,200 tons, as the state-run Global Times reported earlier this month.


The ship is short-haul: It can travel about 50 miles with its 1,000 lithium batteries after two-hour charge, which is the loading and unloading time for the ship, state news site reports. So it can be charged while it is docking.

Sadly, the Chinese spoiled the launch of this otherwise green cargo ship by using it to transport coal for electricity generation on the Pearl River in Guangdong Province.

The ship can carry up to 2,300 tons of coal, though reports such vessels could in the future be used for “passenger ships, ro-ro ships [roll-on/roll-off vessels carrying wheeled cargo] engineering vessels” and similar purposes.

“This kind of ship takes into consideration the harmony between humans and nature and can protect water quality and marine life, and should be copied by other ships sailing on local rivers,” Chinese environmentalist Wang Yongchen told the Global Times.

Certainly running on electricity of any kind is better for the local environment than burning heavy fuel oil. But moving rapidly off of coal generation is the only way China can ensure that the total lifecycle emissions of transporting cargo on an all-electric ship is beneficial to both their country’s air quality and the world’s effort to preserve a livable climate.

Source: ThinkProgress. Reproduced with permission.

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  1. Joe 2 years ago

    Ooooooooh dear. China, how could you do this. Another own goal here to go with that recent article in these very fine pages of Renew Economy that an oilfield in California will be powered by renewable energy. These stories must be a joke…is it 1st April?

    • Ron Horgan 2 years ago

      Yes it will be April 1st in a while, just have to wait

    • Jon 2 years ago

      Carrying coal or not it’s a great vessel.
      A lot will be learnt from it, it is a lot less polluting than a heavy oil powered ship and it will prove cheaper to run.

      There is also a fair few mining operations (including coal) that are heavy electricity users that are going to renewable generation.

      • Joe 2 years ago

        That’s the whole issue isn’t it. We don’t want the coal mining in the first place. Hooking it up with RE power is just more ‘Green Shielding’ by the Fossil Fuellers.

    • David Borojevic 2 years ago

      Would be nice if the article compared the greenhouse gas emissions from this ship charged from a coal fired generator, versus a more tradition fossil fuel ship. Electric cars produce fewer CO2 emissions even if charged from a coal fired power station because the internal combustion engine is no where near as efficient. If this was also the case for this ship then it is still a step forward.

      • Joe 2 years ago

        Step forward…more like inching forward. Finding ways via ‘Green Shielding’ to prolong FF usage is a nonsense. We all know what needs to be done and it needs doing now / urgently. We have a planetary emergency on our hands and the best we can come up with is powering California’s oilfields with RE and shipping coal via an electric cargo ship. C’mon, this is 1st April stuff.

      • MaxG 2 years ago

        This is generally and unfortunately a mute point in many stories like this. While I am all for electric cars, I do wonder how people charge these over night, when most cars would need charging. I am not saying it can’t be done; I am sure it can, but net emissions calculations would be interesting, if not revealing.

        • solarguy 2 years ago

          I think that’s where PHES,SOLAR, WIND and batteries will come to the fore Max. It’s really the only forward, isn’t it?

          • MaxG 2 years ago

            I am sure you know how I feel about this topic… bring on renewables! Ditch coal. I may have (most likely) a blinkered view on the charging issue, related to my personal circumstances; that is while self-reliant with energy as is, an EV (which I would like to own) would pose a significant problem WRT charging it over night. I could opt for charging in the city during the day -> which means I do not have to solve the problem (just find a charging spot, where I could also park the car). What is the problem? To charge the car from my own energy system. I am driving 100km one way every day Mon to Fri. Say 18kWh per 100km means I need to find 36kWh at my place every day… quite a feast to master. So I arrive at 19:00 at home and leave at 0630… 11.5 hours to charge… would need another 40kWh battery… imagine the cost… it would cost me 20k$… quite a price to pay to go electric. I haven’t solved this one yet, hence, I do not join the glorious description on how ‘easy’ and ‘cheap’ EVs are.

          • MaxG 2 years ago

            Did a quick calc… assuming 20kWh per 100km, would save me 4,225 dollars per year in fuel cost. So the battery would ROI in say 5 years… or I would have to drive an EV for 5 years before making any saving (compared to an ICE car). Yes, it is only the financial aspect.

          • solarguy 2 years ago

            Ditch coal absolutely! That’s what I’m about as well. Some of those who own or are going to own an EV, will have to charge after work, if they can’t charge at work.

            What needs to happen now, is for the true adults to plan for the influx of EV’s that will come into the market place in the coming years, by building PHES, wind, solar, batteries and other storage, like biogas and H2.

            This will be the only way to satisfy the coming after dark EV demand. For myself, as I run a home based business, frequently I would be able to charge an EV during the day, with my excess solar production. Max, I know you like to be self sufficient and you like that ideal, so do I, but if you want to own an EV in the coming years, you may have to buy grid power to feed it if, you can’t charge at work.

            Let’s hope it’s not coal, but there is always the weekend to charge from your solar (if you have the excess) and if your staying at home.

  2. Ian 2 years ago

    Well at least the ship isnt oil powered

  3. Ron Horgan 2 years ago

    Another consequence of the clean energy disruption. The power supply to charging points will require massive development. Probably need superconductors from the solar farms to the charging docks. Big electrical engineering work.

  4. Brian Tehan 2 years ago

    You’d think that fuel cells would be more practical on a ship.

    • air rodgers 2 years ago

      it would be a great solution for a ferry which have the same short route and it can recharge during the loading and unloading process, cheaper on fuel , and with the nature of a electrical drive its almost maintenance free….

    • solarguy 2 years ago

      On ocean carriers for sure, plus wind and solar.

  5. Steve 2 years ago

    Irony aside this is a good news story. China is doing much to reduce coal consumption, and has one of the biggest (local) air pollution problems around. This ship shows leadership by a company in an industry not yet thinking too much about reducing emissions.

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