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Neoline says its wind-propelled, transatlantic cargo ship will significantly cut fuel costs while ensuring greater price certainty. Bunkerspot speaks to CEO Jean Zanuttini to find out how.

Established in 2015, Nantes-based Neoline is one a growing number of companies hoping to square the circle of decarbonisation in the maritime sector. Unlike other companies involved in wind propulsion whose technology can be applied to a vessel, Neoline is developing its own wind-propelled cargo ship that will operate between France and North America.

‘From the beginning we wanted to be a shipowner because we knew that what we were proposing would not suit a standard liner operation,’ explains Jean Zanuttini, CEO, Neoline. ‘We had to set up our own liner operation, so we already knew that our objective was to talk to the cargo shippers, not to the shipowner.’

By mid-2017, the company had settled on a line - from St Nazaire, France to Baltimore, US – and this was later expanded to include the Canadian port of Halifax and the French overseas collective of Saint Pierre et Miquelon. From then on, the company set about addressing the technical and operational challenges to turn the concept into a reality, working with French naval engineers who made a detailed predesign in order to be able to start to talk with shipyards. A pre-approval with a classification society DNV was also secured.

The following year, Neoline started the first tender call for the shipyard and signed its first commercial agreement, with Groupe Renault. A letter of intent with Groupe Beneteau soon became a firm contract, and the company has also signed agreements with Hennessy, Manitou, Michelin and most recently cosmetics company Clarins.

‘Now, we’ve found a shipyard…and we are now trying to completely finish the financing of the vessel and start the building in the next few weeks,’ says Zanuttini.

Swift as the process may have been, it was anything but straightforward. Developing the vessel involved incorporating some design elements which, says Zanuttini, are ostensibly counter-intuitive. In order to take maximum advantage of the wind, speed has been reduced to 11 knots compared to 15 knots for a vessel in the same class, and two anti-drifting fins have been added to the hull.

‘In fact, we’ve reduced a little bit of productivity of the asset in order to heavily reduce fuel consumption and environmental impact,’ says Zanuttini. ‘From our point of view, the main challenge is how to put as many square metres of sails up while keeping the capability to enter a harbour. That’s a challenge.’

Another key challenge is trying to reliably predict a ship’s performance with sail technology.

‘All the financial people can see that the ship is slower and the vessel will be a little bit longer. They can see that the ship is more expensive than what is typical for this type of operation,’ says Zanuttini. ‘But, on the exchange, you make a promise that you will save fuel.

By using sails combined with speed reduction, Neoline is targeting a fuel consumption reduction of between 80% and 90% compared to the same vessel class at 15 knots. Compared to the same vessel class travelling at 11 knots, the company aims to save between 60% and 70%. But what if there’s no wind?

‘We still have mechanical propulsion and on the first vessel this will be a diesel engine hybrid with also an electric motor. We have one shaft and one main engine and what we call an electric booster,’ says Zanuttini. ‘It’s really like a hybrid car. You can use both engines for pushing, you can make a generator with the electric motor. You can even let the propeller drive the electric motor in order to generate electricity.

‘As a fuel, we’ll use marine gasoil with an SCR system. It will be the most expensive marine fuel, but we’ll use so little that there is truly no point to invest in a classical booster unit…It’s not interesting anymore to invest in order to use the heaviest fuels.’

And while the engine will be available to the vessel as a back-up, Zanuttini is not expecting to have the wind taken out of its sails.

‘Our first pilot line will be between St-Nazaire-Baltimore-Halifax-Saint Pierre et Miquelon and back to St-Nazaire. It’s a transatlantic crossing and that means there is always wind – not everywhere at the same time – but always wind somewhere,’ he says.

‘With a transatlantic ocean-going line, you can really use weather routing in order to maximise the wind you encounter on the crossing. And that’s the real stake on the operational side of things, to be able to respect our ETA as well as maximising the wind we can harvest with our sails. The ship’s crew will be encouraged to alter course in order to follow the routing systems and to make the best choice between looking for the hope of wind [while] maintaining ETA.’

By using the engine, the vessel will be able to travel up to 14 knots. This, says Zanuttini, might sound ‘counter-intuitive’ but is an integral solution for maximising wind propulsion.

‘Our commercial speed is 11 knots, so with 14 knots [using the engine] we can alter course, take the risk to look for the wind, and if we don’t find the wind, we can catch up.’

Ninety percent of the time, says Zanuttini, the vessel will be able to find the wind required for sailing while ‘maybe one or two times a year’ the weather forecast will be wrong – but the engine gives the company the opportunity to recover and honour the ETA. What’s more, operations will be affected by seasons meaning that in the summertime, the vessel may have to rely on the engine ‘a little bit more’ than during the winter.

So, if the wind fluctuates, will customers’ costs fluctuate as well?

‘The role of the owner is to take on its shoulders the risk associated with the maritime voyage, and that also includes of course the risk of lack of wind,’ says Zanuttini. ‘In fact, the cargo shippers are not paying anything different depending on how the voyage fares. We will not have these kinds of terms in our contract. It’s a multi-year contract.’

But relying on the weather – in this case wind – must make pricing much more complicated, mustn’t it?

‘I disagree with you when you say that we cannot predict. In fact, it’s the fuel-powered classical system that cannot predict the prices,’ maintains Zanuttini. ‘That’s why there are bunker adjustment factors. We are much more able to predict the prices because we are much less impacted by any kind of fuel move and so we completely avoid bunker adjustment factors and we can take multi-year engagements without any terms of valuation on this aspect. And that’s one of our selling points; to be able to give this kind of insurance.’

Zanuttini acknowledges that only after the first few years of operation, and following ‘a lot of technical studies’ will the company learn the true performance of the vessel – but he is confident that theory will convert to practice.

‘It will be on the sea that we will discover what we have to do to reach our objectives. We are very confident in it, but we have to prove it on the sea,’ he says. ‘The first years we will have to adjust and learn exactly what is the exact performance of the vessel but then, once this wrap up is done, we can have a really good prediction.’

Looking ahead, Zanuttini predicts a crucial few months for the company.

‘I hope that I will be able to announce in the next few weeks that building of the vessel has started. We are heavily focused on the financial closing. And aside from that, we will continue to announce gradually new commercial partners as we sign new contracts.’

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