Raising sails for the shipping revolution

Pacific Ecologist magazine
13 min readNov 9, 2015

Sea transport is a critical life-line for Pacific island countries but it relies on costly, high-polluting fossil-fuel imports. PETE NUTTALL & ALISON NEWELL wonder why low-carbon transition programmes for Pacific Island countries do not support available, cost-effective, renewable energy sea transport technologies that would relieve the burden of increasingly expensive fossil-fuel imports and old sub-standard ships, while reinvigorating the region’s transport and industry. Meanwhile the New Zealand government’s “Tokelau Shipping Solution,” commits Tokelau to a fossil-fuel-dependent, increasingly expensive future for at least the next 25 years.

The challenges faced in the Pacific today are as large as the ocean itself. Climate change and rising sea-levels will affect these communities enormously as they search for sustainable livelihoods. Sea transport is a life-line for Pacific Island Countries (PICs). But all present services are fossil-fuel based and increasingly unsustainable. Despite the inherent logic of exploring sustainable sea transport as a regional priority, there has been almost no uptake either by the commercial industry or development agencies.

Providing adequate, efficient, and reliable domestic shipping is one of the most difficult challenges for PICs. Many routes are commercially marginal or worse. The estimated 2,100 domestic ships servicing the countries1 are often old and many do not meet recognised safety standards but are retained in service because they provide essential services to remote communities.2 Shipping disasters directly attributable to sub-standard ships are regular events: the Princess Ashika in Tonga with loss of 74 lives in 2009 and the Rabual Queen in PNG in 2012, with more than 200 lives lost, are just two examples.

Fuel costs rising

Fuel comprises ~40–60% of domestic fleet operating costs in the Pacific3 and this figure is projected to increase. Changes to the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) regulations aimed at cutting sulphur emissions of shipping will add ~60% to the price of marine fuel for PICs by 2020 for all vessels over 400gt. (4) The focus in greenhouse-gas emissions reduction has been on large-scale vessels (10,000+ dwt) servicing international trade, with little attention given to shipping in Small Island States, particularly PICs. Yet Gilpin5 has estimated that vessels smaller than 10,000 dwt emit 26% of all shipping emissions, despite carrying only 4% of world cargo tonnage.

The Pacific region imports 99% of the fossil fuel it needs. (6) Strategies to reduce the dependency have primarily targeted electricity generation. Transport has received far less attention, despite accounting for an average 70% of fuel usage across the region. (7) Sea transport, which may account for 75% of all fuel used in some countries, has been almost totally ignored.

Renewable-energy technology for sea transport is increasingly available and cost effective and offers many benefits for Pacific communities at local, pro­vin­cial, and national levels.8 But dome­stic shipping con­tinues to use fossil-fuel technology because incentives to adopt new technologies and working models of alternatives are lacking. A recent analysis4 concludes that the main barriers to research and trialling of alternatives are not technological as often assumed, but more perceptual in nature. The issue remains almost totally invisible at all levels of policy and donor strategy. Sea transport generally is considered a private investment issue with public or donor investment restricted to infrastructure, primarily ports. Financing shipping assets is difficult in this often marginal industry; old ships being replaced with old ships or reliance on donated and often inappropriate vessels are established norms in most PICs. Commercial banks do not find domestic island shipping attractive for lending because of the high risk, low returns and inadequate collateral for loans. There are also cultural barriers. Larger and faster fossil-fuelled ships are seen as markers of progress while renewable energy technologies such as sail are perceived as a retrograde step under popular misconceptions they will be slower and less reliable.

Such barriers are not limited to the Pacific. A recent global study (9) considered the potential for the IMO to promote reintroduction of wind-powered technologies for international shipping, and examined development of fixed sails, kites, and rotor technology over the past century. It found several structural barriers including lack of policies and incentive schemes promoting wind propulsion, lack of financial resources, insufficient collaborative action and a prevalence of conservative and risk-averse attitudes in the maritime industry. Even though renewable-energy technology for shipping is largely mature and proven to reduce fuel consumption, practical application is either in an early stage of development or very small scale. New technologies often cannot immediately compete in a market where regulations, infrastructure, user practices, and maintenance networks are aligned with the existing technology. This being the case, three key, related priorities emerge: making renewable-energy shipping a priority within national, regional and agency policies; undertaking comprehensive modelling of the economic costs and benefits of alterative technologies and approaches; and accessing development financing for practical trials of these alternatives. (10)

Having identified the need and availability of viable alternatives to fossil-fuel powered shipping, a network of stakeholders in the Pacific have attempted over the past four years to access donor government/agency funding. Proposals have been met with some interest but no commitments.

AusAID, for example considers transport to be a mitigation issue and therefore not eligible for climate change adaptation funding. Asia Development Bank (ADB) considers that ship-asset procurement (as opposed to shipping related infrastructure) is best left to private investment and market forces. New Zealand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) finds the concept too hard and prefers the ‘low-hanging fruit’ of electricity generation. (11) The EU has committed its funding to the Pacific Energy Summit outcomes. There’s unlikely to be major private investment until a wind-shift in policy and donor prioritization allows the practical demonstration of alternatives at the scale needed for meaningful change. Such lack of response mirrors events of more than 30 years ago.

Uto ni Yalo entering Captain Cook Bay, Moorea in 2010. (Oscar Rosa of the Fiji Islands Voyaging Society)

Renewable sea transport projects

The need for sustainable shipping was obvious in the oil crisis of the 1970/80s when research in the Pacific identified that available renewable energy technologies, primarily wind power, could provide viable and cost-effective solutions. In 1981, three United Nations agencies, UNDAT, UNCTAD and UNESCAP, combined to investigate the potential design for an energy-efficient government-operated vessel in the Ha’apai Group of the Kingdom of Tonga. (12) The project stalled in 1983 with reluctant donors citing “insufficient insight into the financial and technical feasibility of the project.” In the end, UNESCAP and ADB provided funds for UK naval engineers to undertake a comprehensive evaluation and design study. This study mirrored our recent findings in Fiji that a combination of small trading catamarans and energy-efficient small freighters are the most appropriate technology options. (4)

ADB also funded engineers and experts overseen by Southampton University to retrofit two small (~300gt) passenger/cargo ships in Fiji with auxiliary sail rigs. These performed above expectation, with average fuel savings of 23–30%, increased stability, increased passage speeds, and much reduced engine wear. The return on the US$40,000 cost to retrofit the first vessel was calculated at an impressive 123% on the most favourable routes and 30% on ‘average’ routes. (13)

Also in this period, Save the Children Fund in Tuvalu and UNDP/FAO initiated research into the practicality of using either pure sail or sail-assisted vessels for subsistence and small-scale commercial fishing in the Pacific. Vessels from one person dugouts to 11m trimarans were built and more than 300 of different designs were distributed in eight PICs. (14,15) But the short duration of the oil crisis and subsequent crash in fossil-fuel prices curtailed further research although energy-efficient catamarans are still being locally built and used in Kiribati.

These examples underscore the need for technology to be appropriate and affordable in the local context. They clearly show the catalytic nature and benefits of quite small amounts of donor investment. The situation is not very different today, except we now have these case studies to guide us. There is certainly no technology vacuum. The designs of the 1980s, particularly for trading catamarans and inter-island/inter-state renewable-energy-powered freighters are valid today and recent improvements in photovoltaic and electric-engine technology can be applied to further decrease fossil-fuel use.

Potential solutions range from retrofitting existing fossil-fuel powered vessels with renewable energy technologies, to hybrid vessels combining renewable energy and fossil fuel power, to custom built non-fossil fuel designs. Renewable energy shipping has the potential to revitalise all aspects of the domestic Pacific industry from ship design and construction to transport operations to maintenance and end-of-life re-cycling, a cradle-to-cradle approach.

Greenheart Sail/Solar 220-ton Freighter.

In Fiji, research into the potential for such vessels began in 2008 with the Sailing for Sustainability project, (16) now a growing network of research partners including the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, WWF, Fiji Islands Voyaging Society, University of the South Pacific (USP) and numerous international collaborators. Greenheart Project, (17) a Japanese NGO, joined our network bringing potential for sustainable 250-tonne freighters, capable of inter-island/inter-country trade. B9 shipping (17) adds potential for international scale container/bulk carriers.

Millennia before Europeans ventured out of sight of land, Pacific seafarers mastered the science of sailing on the ‘apparent’ wind and perfected the design of their giant double-hulled sailing ships; the fast downwind Tahitian Vaka, the speed merchant Popo from Yap, the awesomely powerful Fijian Drua, the elegant Taumako Te Puke. (19,20) Fearless sailors with comprehensive navigational knowledge, they charted and populated islands and islets across one-third of the globe. Reinvigorating this cultural and technological heritage could drive a revolution in sustainable shipping.

In November 2012 we held the first international Sustainable Sea Transport Talanoa10 (SSTT) in Suva which drew interest from leading experts worldwide. As a result, USP is committed to an on-going programme of research and a second SSTT was held in 2014. While our research has focussed primarily on domestic shipping, renewable energy vessels have strong potential for inter-state trade, particularly directly between PICs. Currently, exporters often trans-ship via Sydney or Auckland, making many sub-regional trade opportunities uneconomic and increasing PICs’ dependence on imports from the developed world. Vessels such as the Greenheart design will be capable of direct container shipping of small consignments reliably and regularly, with far lower overheads than the large container ships. Other international research partners are considering vessels for deep-water fishing; large-scale passenger ferries and international cargo ships employing combinations of wind, solar, bio-gas, and rotor-ships.

The biggest change in the resourcing environment since the 1980s is climate change. Yet, despite the unique character­istics of Small Island States which make renewable-energy shipping a priority adaptation tool, the sector is not generally considered to meet the criteria for adaptation funds. Shipping is considered at an international level and as a mitigation priority. It does not meet the criteria for World Bank loans, because it would not be displacing fuel used for electricity generation.

New Zealand’s errors costly for Tokelau

Sustainable sea transport did not make it onto the agenda of the Pacific Energy Summit hosted in Auckland by New Zealand and the European Union in March 2013. MFAT subsequently announced that 79 projects were under consideration for the NZ$613m donor funds committed, “to deliver … a quantum leap forward for the use of clean, affordable and efficient energy.” New Zealand Foreign Affairs Minister, Murray McCully has stated:

what we are attempting is at the very ambitious end of the scale. But the goal of substantially reducing the dependence of Pacific countries on imported diesel for electricity makes this worth a serious effort. (21)

We cannot agree. Solar generation programmes are arguably the least ambitious of the measures necessary to really reduce the Pacific’s diesel dependency, but probably the most profitable for New Zealand renewable energy entrepreneurs.

The paradox of Tokelau is a stark example. We now have the unfortunate situation where MFAT is promoting renewable solar energy electricity for Tokelau with claims that Tokelau is now the first 100% renewable energy country in the world, whilst simultaneously committing them to a fossil-fuel-dependent future for their sea transport, which uses at least three-quarters of their fossil-fuel budget. The flagship Tokelau energy project has used more than NZ$7m of advanced budget (it’s not new or additional aid) to pay New Zealand contractors to install 4,032 solar panels, 1344 batteries, and wiring for 1400 people in three villages.

Certainly cheaper, more accessible electricity is a good thing for Tokelau and presumably the project provides this. But sea transport is the single largest item in the Tokelau annual budget and all sources, including the Tokelau government, have consistently named climate change and sea transport as their greatest priorities. Sea transport has always been problematic and has seen a travesty of errors since the New Zealand government commissioned the MV Tokelau in 1990. It has cost an average of NZ$2m+ yearly for the past decade to service and maintain. Despite repeated advice to Cabinet since at least 2005 that the vessel was increasingly unseaworthy and uneconomic, including more than NZ$0.5m of independent consultant reports, involvement of six government agencies, and two unsuccessful international tender rounds, it has taken a further seven years to address the problem. The ‘Tokelau Shipping Solution’ announced by Minister McCully in June 201222 involved leasing a charter ferry for NZ$12m for two years and a new diesel-powered ship, Mataliki, being building in Chittagong, Bangladesh at a cost of around NZ$8m. Firm data on Tokelau’s sea transport fuel-footprint has yet to be made available despite repeated requests for information. Conservative estimates4 suggest a minimum of 500–940 tonnes annually.

The photovoltaic electricity project anticipated savings of up to 800 litres daily, (22) totalling 242 tonnes annually, although three new back-up generators installed since commissioning may have reduced this. A decision for a new fossil-fuel powered vessel now commits Tokelau to a fuel-dependent and increasingly expensive future for at least the next 25 years. In comparison, a fossil-fuel-free Greenheart vessel capable of carrying 75t of cargo would cost about 10% of this investment and offers savings of ~2 ton of fuel daily or ~500 ton yearly at 250 operational days annually. Ironically, the first Greenheart ship is scheduled to be built at the same shipyard as Mataliki.

Ultimately, sheer necessity will require that the as yet unexplored shipping needs are addressed with low-carbon technologies. Delaying only condemns Pacific countries, like Tokelau, to a fossil-fuel-dependent, ever more expensive future. We can only hope a wind-shift occurs without too many more tragedies caused by old, worn-out ships and worn-out engines. The case for resourcing a revolution in sea transport towards renewable energy options is clear and rational. Lessons from the past show the investment required is relatively small, but there does need to be institutional change in policy infrastructure and funding strategies employed in the region.

Dr Peter Nuttall, Research Associate, Sustainable Sea Transport Research Programme, PaCE-SD, The University of the South Pacific, Fiji. Ms Alison Newell, Research Associate, Sustainable Sea Transport Research Programme,PaCE-SD, The University of the South Pacific, Fiji.


1. Secretariat of the Pacific Community (2011) Framework for Action on Transport Services 2011–2020: Improving the Efficiency, Effectiveness and Sustainability of Pacific Transport Services, SPC, Suva.

2. AusAID (2008) ’08 Pacific Economic Survey: Connecting the Region. Pacific Affairs Group, Canberra.

3. Rounds, J. (2012) Not Just About Boats: Regional and national policy situation and implications, Presentation to the Sustainable Sea Transport Talanoa 2012, University of the South Pacific, Suva.

4. Nuttall, P. (2013) Sailing For Sustainability: The Potential of Sail Technology as an Adaptation Tool for Oceania. PhD Thesis, Victoria University, Wellington.

5. Gilpin, D. (2012) Flagships of the Future. Presentation to the Sustainable Sea Transport Talanoa 2012, University of the South Pacific, Suva

6. Woodruff, A. (2007) The Potential for Renewable Energy to Promote Sustainable Development inPacific Island Countries, SOPAC Miscellaneous Report 692, SOPAC, Suva

7. Fifita, S. (2012). Prospects of the use of renewable energy in transportation sector. Presented at the Japan IRENA joint workshop: Accelerating renewable energy deployment in the Pacific region: Meeting the challenges. 25–26 May 2011. Okinawa; Mofor, L, M. Isaka, H. Wade and A. Soakai (2013) Pacific Lighthouses: Renewable Energy Roadmapping for Islands, IRENA, Bonn.

8. Nuttall, P. (2012) Steering a course for the future with sticks, stones, grass and a little sharkskin: The case for revitalisation of sail technology and sailing culture as a practical sea transport response to climate change and fossil fuel dependence/supply issues in Fiji. Journal of Pacific Studies, 32:163–175.

9. Rojon, I. (2013) Blowin’ in the wind? Possibilities of the International Maritime Organization to Promote the Uptake of Wind Propulsion in International Shipping, Masters Thesis, Utrecht University.

10.University of the South Pacific/Sailing for Sustainability (2013) Sustainable Sea Transport Talanoa 2012 Outcomes Record. See also http://www.usp.ac.fj/index.php?id=12456 for programme, presentations and outcome record.

11. Mayhew, J (2011) New Zealand Aid Programme — Energy in the Pacific, IRENA Workshop 26–28 October 2011, PowerPoint Presentation, Sydney

12. Palmer, C. and E.M. Corten (1985) “Preliminary Design Study of Intraisland Transport Vessels for the Ha’apai Group of Islands in the Kingdom of Tonga’ in Proceedings of Regional Conference on Sail-Motor Propulsion, Asian Development Bank, Manila.

13. Satchwell, C.J. (1985) Windship Technology: Proceedings of the International Symposium on Windship Technology (Windtech ‘85), Southampton, U.K., April 24–25, 1985.

14. Brown, J (1982) New Water Working Craft: Special Report, The National Conference on Applications of Sail-Assisted Power Technology, Norfolk, Virginia.

15. United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (1984) Wind-Powered Vessels for Coastal and Inter-Island Use in the Asian and Pacific Region. Technical papers submitted to the Meeting of Experts on the Application of Windpower in Shipping. 14–16 April 1984, Tokyo/Niigata.

16. See www.sailingforsustainability.org

17. See www.greenheartproject.org

18. See www.b9energy.com

19. Howe, K.R. (ed) (2006) Vaka Moana — Voyages of the Ancestors. David Bateman, Auckland.

20. D’Arcy, P. (2006) The People of the Sea — Environment, Identity and History in Oceania. University of Hawai’i Press, Honolulu.

21. scoop.co.nz; 20/3/2013

22. beehive.govt.nz/release/new-ferry-lifeline-remote-tokelau Accessed 6/7/2012

23. www.powersmartsolar.co.nz Accessed 22/2/2015