The world's 300 biggest superyachts produce close to the same carbon footprint as the African nation of Burundi " but there may be one that even an environmentalist would find both appealing and sustainable
There might soon come a day when Swedish eco-crusader Greta Thunberg " the 17-year-old who is unabashedly taking on world leaders who are in denial about global warming and climate change " will swap her zero-emission sailing boat for a superyacht.
A sustainable superyacht, that is.
A study released by New York's Sage Publications in May 2019, titled "Measuring the Ecological Impact of the Wealthy: Excessive Consumption, Ecological Disorganization, Green Crime and Justice", points to owners of ultra-luxe vessels as some of the biggest culprits in the world's growing carbon emissions crisis " that's 300 superyachts, each more than 100 metres long, needing more than 121 litres of oil a year. They account for 284 million kilograms of carbon dioxide emissions annually " nearly as much as the tiny African nation of Burundi produces: 297 million kg.
All that might change soon " yacht makers are incorporating eco-friendly features into their craft, including hybrid engines and lightweight material that have an impact on fuel consumption.
Even Thunberg " who in 2019 famously sailed from her home country Sweden to the United Nations Climate Action Summit 2019 in New York on her environmentally-friendly boat " admits it would be unrealistic to expect every Earth-loving person to give up gas-guzzling planes, trains and automobiles. While some car companies, such as Tesla, seek to balance out environmental impact with comfort and luxury, the auto industry is still struggling to find a solution for more sustainable battery alternatives. And when it comes to 100-metre yachts built for luxury and speed, the challenge is even more daunting.
Giovanna Vitelli, vice-president of the Italian Azimut Benetti Group, says environmental impact is an increasingly pressing concern among yacht owners. "(Superyachts) are emotional products, they're at the top of the pyramid of luxury. But the world is changing," she explains. "If you look around, this kind of (excessive) opulence probably no longer suits customers' taste, and that's a good thing."
This means looking beyond hybrid engines and fuel alternatives, using lightweight materials, and actively recycling.
Its top of the line, fully custom-built Benetti Giga yachts are all about indulgence. These luxe boats, 90 metres or longer, are the epitome of luxury, and are outfitted with bespoke fittings reflecting the grand desires of their wealthy owners.
During Benetti's "Giga season" last year, three 100-metre yachts were launched in Livorno, Italy, within 100 days. The opulent Giga pleasure cruisers (FB272, FB275 and FB277) are loaded with the latest technology in terms of domotics (smart home technologies), audio and video, and propulsion and stabilisation programmes.
The flagship FB275, at 108 metres, is the biggest yacht Benetti has ever built. A large vessel inevitably comes with greater fuel consumption " the FB275 is equipped with a 345,000-litre fuel tank, and has an electric Schottel stern SPJ pump jet that enables it to travel distances powered entirely by electric propulsion. But it is the 100-metre, six-deck FB272 that might become the starship of the future " "the largest yacht with hybrid propulsion in the world", according to Vitelli.
It has a hybrid propulsion system with diesel-electric engines and two Azipod propulsion units connected to a special battery pack that allows for vibration-free, silent cruising. At full charge, the 35-tonne batteries can keep the yacht going for 12 hours when not cruising. There's also a waste-heat recovery system on board for conserving electrical power.
Benetti's sister brand, Azimut, is committed to producing more fuel-efficient boats by using large carbon fibre panels.
"Sustainability is a hot topic today (because) there's no plan B for our planet," says Azimut CEO Marco Belletti. What we've done so far is to be efficient in consumption " we are not producing engines, we produce hulls.
"We've reduced fuel consumption because we've used carbon fibre on our boats, so our products will be lighter, which is (directly linked to) fuel efficiency."
This approach is producing results, and Vitelli agrees. "Less weight in the hull has resulted in between 25 and 35 per cent less (fuel) consumption. Designing these optimal hull shapes is the best solution to the problem."
Other leading players are also working towards lowering emissions via hybrid engines, rather than taking on the ambitious task of total elimination.
In 2015, the Netherlands-based Feadship " a company that can trace its roots to 1849 and is well-known for producing custom superyachts " fitted the 83.5-metre Savannah with a diesel-electric engine powered by a million-watt, 30-tonne lithium-ion battery bank that cuts fuel consumption by 30 per cent, making it the world's first hybrid superyacht. Lightweight materials are used to optimise electric propulsion " one of its recently-built vessels, the Najiba, includes aluminium components in a bid to reduce fuel consumption.
"This project also illustrates how we might move forward with other efficiencies with respect to electric propulsion," says Feadship's technical director, Roderick de Vries.
"The lighter and more efficient a design is, the easier it will be to fit electric engines. One of the key obstacles in using batteries is their power density, which is lower than diesel fuel.
"If we can achieve an efficient hull and better power consumption, less battery capacity will be required to reach a given range or speed. Who knows what the future may hold?" he says.
Benetti CEO Franco Fusignani says the process of manufacturing a greener engine is well under way. The company has joined with engine builder Siemens to build the new E-Mode, a propulsion system "with electric motors working in parallel with the main diesel engines".
"With this innovative system, yachts will be saving up to 15 per cent fuel, which also means less emissions," says Fusignani. Thanks to a plug-in system, the E-Mode can be conveniently added to standard propulsion architecture.
While the fully electric option might not be a viable solution for most yachts right now, builders are working towards other solutions that will cut down their impact and emissions.
And because diesel engines might not always be able to comply with emission reduction, Feadship has devised Oxywash, a clean new technology that directly transfers fixed nitrogen, made water-soluble, to where it naturally belongs: seawater (when water-soluble nitrogen is introduced into seawater, it transforms into nitrite and nitrate, substances that naturally occur in the ocean).
Despite these advances, the industry remains pragmatic about how close it is to a zero-emission future. Vitelli candidly admits it ultimately has to do with money.
"To be honest, it's a very high cost (to develop green solutions). More than 10 per cent of the value of the boat is the (propulsion) system," she says. That's a whopping US$100 million if it's a US$1 billion boat.
"If you (go electric), you add weight to the boat because of the batteries " batteries are heavy," says Vitelli. "You have to balance the extra weight with extra power on the engine."
Belletti agrees, and points to what he believes could perhaps be another way out. "Batteries might not be sustainable, so the future might be solar energy," he says.
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