Alternative Fuel for Cruise Ships: Are We There Yet?

It’s not every day that I get excited over a press release. But here was the headline I read last month: “New Biofuel Initiative for Fred. Olsen.” Wow, I thought, a cruise line is looking for a new way to power ships. Forget oil, who needs it? It’s too expensive, costs cruise lines millions of extra dollars per year and it’s the customers getting the short end of the stick, forced to pay fuel supplements to help cover the costs. Seems like not a week goes by that another “Fill In Cruise Line Increases Fuel Supplement” release hits the wire.

biodiesel fuel

Still little more than a dream, biodiesel might replace oil on cruise ships someday.

So here I was, looking at this announcement from the UK-based cruise line Fred. Olsen about how it was partnering with a start-up company (don’t you love the phrase “start-up company?” Just sounds so enterprising and full of imminent success) called Bio Driven of Canterbury, UK, which is dedicated to producing high quality, compliant biodiesel. From what I can gather, biodiesel is renewable fuel for diesel engines derived from natural oils. Sounds well and good, right? I read on.

Fred. Olsen was going to collect its waste cooking oil (I imagined all that grease that comes from cooking French fries and grilling hamburgers) and transform it through a carbon negative process into clean and efficient fuel. The release said, “The waste oil will be collected from the ships in Southampton and Dover, in special containers supplied by Bio Driven. The product is then delivered to the plant in Canterbury where it is filtered, analyzed and washed, then put through a process that removes the glycerine. The glycerine-free biodiesel created by this process is then dosed to remove any chemical impurities and undergoes a final polishing and filtration, before being packaged ready for supply as environmentally friendly fuel.”

I had no idea what the above meant, but it sounded great. There it was. Fred. Olsen had devised a way to turn its cooking residue into fuel for its ships. If I had a broker, I thought, I would be on the horn buying 1,000 shares of the line. But then I got to thinking, is this really what’s up? And, if so, why hadn’t I heard of other lines doing the same?

I decided to make two calls; one to another cruise line, one to Fred. Olsen. I spoke with a representative at Carnival who told me that they were always looking and closely monitoring biofuels and alternative fuel source developments, but, it appeared, these options were not viable, yet, as cruise ship power sources. Interesting, I thought. Maybe Carnival should call Fred. Olsen. They had done it!

Not so fast. My next call was to Matt Grimes, director of logistics for Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines. I couldn’t wait to hear how the line planned on implementing the new technology. “Matt,” I said, “this is extraordinary, genius, give me the strategy.” Then heartbreak. “No ships will run on biodiesel,” Grimes said, crushing me like one of those anvils that fall from the sky in cartoons. “Tenders (those small boats that shuttle passengers from ship to shore), though, may be able to run on biodiesel,” he added. I picked myself up. It was a start.

Apparently, the debate regarding alternative fuels and biofuels is still in its infancy. Fred. Olsen is going to take that waste cooking oil, clean it, and reuse it for things like shoreside operations. But, as it stands now, we are far away from powering a cruise ship on biodiesel alone. Grimes tells me that a normal cruise ship goes through 40 tons of fuel per day. Fred. Olsen produces 40 tons of waste cooking oil per year. Do the math. “We are still years away,” Grimes says, “but we can dream.”

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