Last week there were a story about electric barges going round the internet. (The story was going around, not the barges. No barges on the internet) Later this year the inland waterways of Belgium and the Netherlands will welcome five zero-emission container barges. Made by a company called Portliner, they will be able to carry 24 containers each, with six larger vessels under construction that will take ten times that number. Once they’re all in operation, the electric barges will together be able to do the work of 23,000 diesel trucks.
That’s a useful modal shift, but what caught my eye is the battery technology. We’ve had electric barges for a while. There’s one that does events in London. The big innovation here is that the boats will run on batteries fitted inside a shipping container.
As you may know, globalisation is built on the shipping container. Up until the 1950s, sea freight came in all sorts of shapes and sizes – boxes, barrels, sacks, crates. Cargo was craned on board in nets and then moved around inside the ship by hand, balancing and stacking it – a labour intensive and therefore expensive process. It took a long time to load and unload ships. In some cases they spent longer in port unloading than they did at sea on the actual journey.
Containerization was a transformative innovation. Standard sized metal boxes could be craned straight off the ship in one go, and onto a waiting lorry or train. They stacked easily on the docks and on board. It took a fraction of the labour force to operate the cranes, which dramatically cut costs – and made dock workers redundant across the world. With ships able to move off quicker, port capacity rose. Importers and exporters benefited from lower levels of theft and loss, because their containers could be locked and everything kept together. Global trade boomed.
Rotterdam and Antwerp were some of the first ports to embrace containerization, so it’s fitting they should now be pioneering container batteries. The same modular principles apply to containers when you use them as batteries. You need somewhere to charge them onshore, but after that they fit within the existing port infrastructure. They can be moved around by the same forklifts and cranes, and loaded on board the ship in the same way as the cargo. At the destination port, depleted batteries are swapped for fresh ones, so ships are not held up with charging time.
Another big advantage of this approach is that existing barges can be retro-fitted to run on electric power. As the CEO of Portliner points out, even if they were to produce 500 of their barges every year, it would take 50 years to displace all of Europe’s inland shipping with electric. But if you’ve got modular batteries in container form, it’s only the drive system that needs to be changed. Since each barge gains 8% more space by doing away with the engine room and fuel tanks, there’s a decent incentive for companies to invest.
So we’ll be hearing more about container batteries, and not just in shipping either. As the cost of battery storage falls, high capacity batteries in container form are likely to start replacing diesel generators at festivals, as back-up power for hospitals, and a number of other applications.