Solar Takes to the Seas in First Sun-Propelled Cargo Ship

Japanese shipping giant Nippon Yusen K.K. and oil distributor Nippon Oil Corp. today launched the first-ever cargo ship with a propulsion system powered, in part, by solar energy. The freighter, which left a port in Kobe carrying vehicles by Toyota (s TM), sports $1.68 million worth of solar panels — enough to provide only 0.2 percent of the energy needed for propulsion, AFP reports.

Even that small percentage represents a significant first step for the shipping industry, which accounts for 1.4-4.5 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Historically subject to few controls because it operates on international waters, the industry may soon face tighter emissions standards closer to shore if regulators follow the lead of California’s Air Resources Board. The board’s new strategy for reducing emissions, adopted earlier this month, includes requiring ships to turn off engines and use cleaner power systems while docked at port. California air regulators also adopted a rule this summer prohibiting the use of “bunker fuel” within 24 nautical miles of the state’s coastline beginning in 2009.

Already, the 168 member countries of the UN International Maritime Organization have agreed to a series of sulphur dioxide emissions cuts to be phased in along protected shorelines by 2015 and at sea by 2025. In October, when that agreement was reached, International Chamber of Shipping Secretary Simon Bennett told Reuters, “The big question will be whether or not the oil refining industry will be able to deliver this new demand for distillate [a less-polluting type of fuel] that is going to be created for shipping.” Now the question may be whether or not the shipping industry will adopt a renewable alternative.