Tilting at Wind

A German engineer aims to revolutionize the shipping industry with a kite.

For those who have given up waiting for the captains of global industry to work on reducing environmental impact for the right reasons, rising fuel prices may be welcome news: nothing motivates corporate polluters to think about the environment like pressure on the bottom line. One Hamburg-based company is banking on that motivation to guarantee the success of its daring, revolutionary, and faintly ridiculous new idea: a wind-propulsion system for use in overseas cargo ships.

Wind propulsion as a way to move ships across water is, of course, nothing new, and SkySails isn’t the first company to try to revive it. There have been several attempts, including the Danish government’s WindShip project—initiated in 1995 and declared unsuccessful by 1998. What makes SkySails different is its major departure from the sail-on-a-mast model of the wind-powered sailing ships of old: the sail is a kite, tied to the deck by a strong and light cable. While it looks a bit silly, the kite solves many of the problems of a mast-based system: it is cheaper to install, takes up less valuable deck space, and creates less drag than a large mast, which helps keep fuel efficiency high.

The idea is the brainchild of SkySails founder Stephan Wrage, a 33-year-old engineer, sailor, and kite surfer from Hamburg. “On the ocean, wind is the cheapest source of energy, and the price of oil has tripled in the last two years,” Wrage says. “There is a clear need in the industry for a clean and cheap energy source, and the environmental impact of shipping is quite high.” His efforts may be on the verge of paying off: the Beluga Group, a Bremen-based international shipper, announced in January its plans to implement the system on one of its 460-foot multipurpose heavy cargo freighters.

The timing of the launch is good. In addition to the rise in fuel costs, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and the European Union have both introduced stricter regulations on emissions from cargo ships—which are notorious polluters because of the cheap and toxic variety of fuel oil on which they rely. The IMO’s new regulations, ratified in May 2005, will push many ships to switch to more expensive low-sulfur fuel. Even so, Wrage estimates that the savings in fuel costs from a SkySails system will offset the cost of installation, service, and maintenance within four to five years.

Wrage has no illusions about what really sells SkySails. “Clearly the reduction in cost is persuasive because it’s what drives the industry,” he says. “But the fact that we have the chance to reduce emissions is very important to SkySails and to shippers as well. Competition drives the industry—no matter what the politics, the SkySails system will pay back quite quickly. It’s an added benefit that companies can say, ‘We are doing what we can to reduce emissions.’”

Asked whether SkySails will become the industry standard or remain an oddity, Wrage is optimistic: “We’d love to see it become the standard, and that’s what we aim for. We know that SkySails is the best system available, and now it’s just a question of management and luck. At the moment, signs are very positive.”

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