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Sandia study finds fuel cell barges may be attractive lower-cost cold-ironing solution for some types of vessels at some ports

Basic concept of a fuel cell barge. Although two containers are shown here, the actual number of containers would depend on the power and energy requirements of the vessel to be powered. Credit: Pratt and Harris (2013). Click to enlarge.

A study by researchers at Sandia National Laboratories found that hydrogen fuel cell barges may be both technically feasible and commercially attractive as a clean, quiet and efficient power source to provide electrical power for some types of vessels at berth or at anchorage. This practice in which a vessel at berth connects to a source of electricity on the shore is called “cold-ironing”, shore power or Alternative Maritime Power (AMP).

Vessels that are not likely to be technically feasible are cruise ships, refrigerated bulk carriers (reefer vessels), and some types of liquid bulk tankers, according to the study. This, the Sandia team said, is because their multi-megawatt power requirements and potentially long run times would necessitate multiple MW-class fuel cell units and impractically-large stores of hydrogen. Container ships are likely to be feasible, but their power demand depends primarily on the number of refrigerated containers (reefers) on-board.

Other vessels such as traditional liquid bulk tankers, auto/RoRo carriers, break and dry bulk carriers, fishing trawlers, ocean tugs, and harbor vessels are all technically feasible applications due to their sub-megawatt power requirements.

The consideration of commercial feasibility revealed that some target vessel types are not as favorable as others. These include all the bulk liquid tankers, reefer vessels, both dry and break bulk carriers. The reason is that to utilize shore power, any vessel needs to have specialized on-board equipment installed, and to achieve a reasonable return on investment for this additional cost, shore power would need to be frequently utilized. These types of vessels are typically not frequent visitors to a single port, meaning that investment in the infrastructure required is not likely to make economic sense for the vessel owner/operator. Although there are exceptions, auto/RoRo carriers typically are also not frequent visitors so it is likely they would not make commercially-successful applications either.

Finally it must be noted that of the remaining types (harbor vessels, ocean tugs, fishing trawlers, and container ships) the first three usually have shore power infrastructure installed at their home berths already. That means that a shore power barge would be most applicable to container ships at berth, assuming that their power needs can be adequately defined or restricted.

On the positive side, the current regulatory situation has resulted in a high likelihood of enthusiastic participation by the container fleets, especially those that have vessel traffic to/from California ports. Ironically, however, the applicability for these vessels would be when they are visiting ports outside of California (such as Portland (OR), and Tacoma and Seattle (WA)) since the major California ports are currently installing grid-supplied shore power capability at all container terminals. Thus, with proper design and coordination, a shore power barge with a hydrogen-fueled PEM fuel cell system for powering container ships at berth could become a commercially viable product.

—Pratt and Harris (2013)

Auxiliary power to docked ships, usually provided by on-board diesel engines, is a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution, accounting for one-third to one-half of the in-port emissions attributed to ocean-going vessels. According to a 2004 study by the Natural Resources Defense Council, average daily emissions for a busy port could exceed the total emissions from nearly 500,000 vehicles.

The study evaluated a simple fuel cell strategy that consists of mounting a hydrogen-fueled proton exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cell on a floating barge. Supplying a container ship with average power and run times (1.4 MW over 48 hours) requires four 40-ft containers, two for the fuel cell and two for hydrogen fuel storage, which could readily fit on a typical flat-top barge. For ships requiring less power, such as tugboats, a single container housing both the fuel cell and hydrogen will suffice, according to the Sandia study.

To evaluate the feasibility of the fuel cell barge strategy and analyze potential deployment options, Sandia’s Joe Pratt visited ports up and down the West Coast and in Hawaii. He gathered data from two US Department of Transportation Maritime Administration facilities and the ports of Long Beach, Calif.; Los Angeles, Calif.; Oakland, Calif.; Portland, Ore.; Tacoma, Wash.; Honolulu, Hawaii; and Seattle, Wash.

The US Navy has been employing grid-based cold-ironing for many years to save fuel. Ports in California are now turning to the practice due to a California Air Resources Board regulation that requires shore power in many instances beginning in 2014. While only a few berths have grid-based cold-ironing, ports throughout California are installing infrastructure to meet the state Air Resources Board’s regulations that take effect in 2014.

However, grid-based cold-ironing is complex and costly, and most ports lack the infrastructure needed to meet the power needs of multiple ships at berth. Those costs can run up to $5-10 million or more per berth, the study found. The Port of Oakland is installing 11 berths on six terminals at an estimated cost of about $70 million.

In addition, switching to grid-based power doesn’t eliminate emissions. Instead, that approach shifts the emissions to the source of electricity. Depending on the electricity source, the overall reduction in emissions can be relatively small.

The hydrogen fuel cell barge bypasses the need for electrical infrastructure. The barge also has the capability of being moved from berth to berth as needed and to anchorage points to power vessels that are waiting for berths.

In California, ports are already installing the necessary infrastructure for cold-ironing because of the regulations introduced a few years ago. So hydrogen fuel cell auxiliary power has the opportunity for greater impact elsewhere. While this was an unexpected finding, we discovered other locations and applications for hydrogen fuel cell power.

—Joe Pratt

At ports in Oregon and Washington, grid-based cold ironing infrastructure is limited or nonexistent. Using a hydrogen fuel cell to power container ships at berth has attracted interest for its potential economic and environmental benefits, Pratt said, and he continues to work with those ports on quantifying the benefits and deployment options.

Hawaii’s Honolulu Harbor in Oahu had a different need. Much of the cargo is unloaded and then reloaded onto barges for distribution to the other islands. As the barges have no power, they carry diesel generators to provide power to shipping containers that require refrigeration, known as “reefers.”

You can replace the diesel generator with a hydrogen fuel cell without changing the operations. It’s just a power source in a box, a shipping container in this case.

—Joe Pratt

Hawaii ports aren’t facing the same emissions regulations as California ports, but the potential savings in fuel cost is attractive for the company operating the inter-island transportation service, along with anyone else suffering from high fuel expenses.

The study’s basic fuel cost analysis showed that at today’s prices hydrogen, at about $4 per kilogram, with a fuel cell is cost-competitive with maritime fuels using a combustion engine. Subsequent analysis has shown that when generators are frequently producing less than maximum power, such as in the Hawaii application, the efficiency advantage of fuel cells compared to the combustion engine is widened. Even hydrogen at $5 per kilogram can potentially save tens of thousands of dollars per year for each generator.

Pratt is now developing a detailed plan for the Hawaiian inter-island transport barge application.




There are many studies showing alternative and new ways of producing and utilizing energy exist. Virtually all of these require significant investments in capital equipment. In the long term this seems a no brainer, in that money can be saved or made, but in the short term keeping capital investments down makes this and the next quarter look better and the current executives benefit are much higher. Where is the study that says a lack of vison about the future will eventually destroy all companies even if they can hang on a little while longer by application of some political favoritism?

Some say the market will take care of things, but if our government is under the thumb of industry, there is no market.

We have no gas tax to pay for the wars (indirect subsidization of the oil industry).

Only dealers can sell cars. The manufacturers are not allowed.

I am sure there are others. List yours. What government regulation formed at the behest of industry limits a true marketplace?


@BK4, power utilities were granted public 'monopolies' for public good, but should technology advances make distributed power cheaper - utilities constrain progress.

Batteries with several times present performance have been government certified, but don't pass oil money buyouts.

The natural world food supply is polluted by Genetically Modified (patented) Organisms, but the officers of the key corporation that did this, made 'Agent Orange', "absorbed" a hundred competing seed companies, etc have been neither water-boarded nor publicly executed.

A US corporation is a "person" and can buy the 'laws of the land', but can't be jailed, can change names in an afternoon, can't necessarily 'die', and buys/owns elections/politicians, ..

Then there's patent laws, lost drug wars, oil wars, Dick Cheney, blanket citizen surveillance, bankruptcy healthcare, etc, etc,.. do a extended web search..


The use of fuel cell barges for cold ironing may be largely a symbolic victory. If indeed it ever happens at all.

Using data from 2004 studies is out of date and very misleading.

Many Ports and the Maritime standards enforced by the Maritime Insurance organizations, are now requiring that ship based diesel APUs, meet Tier 3 and eventually Tier 4 emissions standards making them as clean a modern American automotive diesels. Back in 2007 and prior these APU diesels were not cleaned up at all, and had no toxic emissions abatement equipment.


how is this better than putting a ICE Genset on a barge?


Ice would be running on diesel.
It would be better than running the ship's engines, as they would be more optimised, but emissions would still be considerable.
Hydrogen in fuel cells is zero emission at point of use.


It's better than an ICE genset because the emissions are displaced to wherever the hydrogen is made, which may be outside of the metropolitan area and are likely better controlled in any event.

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