Coal-powered ships: a nostalgic way to cut costs

The maritime industry is about to take a giant leap back into the past. While those in the industry ruefully shake their heads over the size of their oil bills (bulk carriers leaving Australian ports now pay 10 times more for fuel oil than they did in 1973), they also look nostalgically over their shoulders to the days when ships burned coal to run their engines.

And some shippers are doing more than just reminiscing. They're placing orders.

Last year, Australia's Bulkships Ltd., a subsidiary of Thomas National Transport, signed a contract with Italy's Italcantieri for two 75,000 -deadweight-ton coal-fired bulk carriers, to cost about $53.4 million each.

Shortly thereafter, the government-owned Australian National Line followed suit and contracted with Mitsubishi in Japan to build two 74,700-deadweight-ton, coal-fired bulk carriers, at a cost of about $58.7 million apiece. The four ships are intended to haul bauxite between Australian ports.

And in the United States, where no coal-powered ship has been built since 1953, New England Electric has contracted with General Dynamics Corporation to construct a $60-million coal-fired vessel at its Quincy, Mass., Shipyard. The ship will carry 2.2 million tons of coal annually along the Eastern seaboard, using about 1 percent of the cargo for its own power.

At a shipyard in Spain, two oil-burning tankers are being converted to coal, and some experts say that such retrofitting is a not-too-remote possibility for US flagships.

Shipbuilders expect to see more and more of these projects on their books through the 1980s and '90s. It's been a long time since they last filled such orders.

In the 1920s, virtually all of the world's steam-powered ships burned coal. However, in the 1950s oil emerged as a cheaper, cleaner, less bulky alternative, and the coal-fired ship became just about obsolete, with the exception of a few "dinosaurs" of the species still in operation on the Great Lakes.

Now the tables may turn again.

Coal is still bulkier and more expensive to transport and use than oil. Capital and nonfuel operating costs are higher for coal-powered vessels than for their oil-burning cousins, as coal requires larger crews and more expensive equipment. But as oil costs escalate, the coal alternative looks attractive for the long run.

Last year the National Research Council put together a report on "Alternative Fuels for Maritime Use," which states that, given the options, "Coal is the primary alternate marine fuel; every effort should be made to implement its use."

Probably the most serious present obstacle to such implementation is the worldwide shortage of coal-bunkering facilities. Because so few coal-powered ships have sailed the seas in recent decades, few ports are new equipped to fuel ships with coal.

However, many shipping experts evoke old-style economics and predict that where demand is strong, supply will follow. Says Frank Critelli, a program manager with the US Maritime Administration: "When we went from coal to oil, the big problem was that we had no oil-bunkering facilities. But now they exist. It will be the same with coal."

For the moment, coal is most feasible for colliers, or coal carrying ships, which will be toting their own fuel and won't be dependent on bunkering facilities. However, some experts predict that when facilities and equipment have improved, container ships, too, will be making the switch to coal.

Pollution is also an issue in considering the switch to coal, but in the stampede away from oil, few are worrying much about it.Within 50-mile limits, domestic regulations may develop, perhaps forcing ships to rely on an alternative source fuel while in Port. On the open seas, however, international regulations are a distant prospect at best. One possible impact, according to a government official: Large quantities of coal ash might adversely affect the ocean floor.

Movement is necessarily slow in the maritime industry because of the time and money involved in ship construction. Therefore, the switch back to coal, if it comes, will not take place overnight. Decisions being made now will appear on drawing boards in the mid-1980s, and the vessels springing from those plans wouldn't be seen on the open waters in large numbers until t he 1990s.

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