Decarbonising the Port Industry Through Hydrogen

"Although shipping is clearly the most environmentally friendly way to move freight, if the shipping industry was a country, it would still be the 6th largest emitter of CO2."

Bristol Port discusses how the shipping industry can be decarbonised through the use of hydrogen in order to achieve net zero targets set out by the International Maritime Organisation.


It is the fuel and feedstock for producing stars in our night sky, and it is the most common and simplest element in the known universe. However, speak to the average person and their knowledge of hydrogen will be limited. Images of the 1937 Hindenburg disaster may spring to mind, shortly followed by confusion over the Teletubby style rainbow variants of hydrogen available. What people really need to know however, is that this simple molecule has the potential to play a vital role in boosting the UK’s aspirations of reaching net zero by 2050, and doing so safely and ethically and furthermore, potentially acting as the saviour of the maritime industry.

Although shipping is clearly the most environmentally friendly way to move freight, if the shipping industry was a country, it would still be the 6th largest emitter of CO2. In recognition of this, The International Maritime Organisation (IMO) set a target of reducing emissions related to maritime transport by 50% by 2050, in comparison to 2008. As the industry collectively looks to reach this goal, Bristol Port is proud to be committed to reaching their own targets of net zero.

By looking in depth at their operation, the Port has found ways to create energy efficiency and optimisation initiatives through a switch to LEDs, introducing a new Smart Dock Water Management System and phasing out all oil burning boilers. They have adopted smart energy technologies to manage use of electricity. Renewable energy in the form of 3 turbines on site, provide 35% of the Port’s electricity, along with ambitions to add solar panels on sheds across the Dock estate. Port vehicles, where practical, are moving to an 100% electric white fleet along with electric smaller cargo handling equipment such as forklifts. So where does hydrogen come in?

Critically, the opportunity lies amongst assets around the Port such as heavy duty plant equipment for handling cargo, harbour vessels and from ships calling at the Port. Bristol Port is currently participating in a high level investigation, whilst it continues to learn about the creation, storage and demand of the fuel and how it can be used to benefit the Port and the surrounding area. Already, the Port’s key vessels, such as tug boats and the Port’s shoalbuster, Graham Robertson, which carries out dredging operations, is currently using biofuel in the form of Hydrogenated Vegetable Oil (HVO.)

However, this low carbon fuel will be replaced in the future with the possibility of vessels being converted to hydrogen and the Port is excited to see that governing bodies such as the Maritime Coast Guard Agency, that are responsible for safety and certification in the UK waters, have already approved several hydrogen vessels of similar class and build to vessels owned by Bristol Port.  But from a commercial point of view, there are even greater prizes to be won.

With the Port strategically located in the South West with unsurpassed connectivity, the Port considers itself as a possible future distribution hub and is eager to explore opportunities to import, export and store this fuel. Bristol Port not only has the real estate but also the experience to deal with the import of liquids. This would create a number of jobs in the South West and maritime industry, but crucially it would aid in the creation of a greater hydrogen hub in the South West, which is needed if the UK Government is serious that hydrogen is the silver bullet and the way to help decarbonise our future.

In terms of the shipping industry itself, a major positive is that shipping infrastructure is completely based on liquid based fuels already, providing a great basis for future hydrogen in shipping use. Currently though, there is no bunkering infrastructure available for large ships using hydrogen in Europe. One could argue, this is almost like the case of the chicken and the egg. How can we build new ships or retrofit old vessels to use hydrogen if there is nothing in place at their destination ports to fuel them? If the maritime industry really want to push forward, we need to move faster by collaborating and ensuring the infrastructure and innovation in hydrogen at our ports is there and this can only be done, if collectively we come together and invest in the technology and skills to make this happen. There is no doubt about it, the industry is ripe for change and it is ready to embrace alternative fuels. Shipping lines and ports across the globe are making pledges to achieve ambitious goals and just perhaps hydrogen will be the catalyst in making these goals a reality.

Bristol Port is proud to be part of the UK Marine Hydrogen Working Group and South West Hydrogen Ecosystem Partnership, and playing our part in the maritime industry to gain knowledge and understanding of a hydrogen future.

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