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A Return to the Age of Sail? PDF Print E-mail
Wednesday, 22 December 2004 08:46

From: WorldChanging: A Return to the Age of Sail?: December 08, 2004

Wind power is not a new concept. Windmills have been around for centuries, and wind-powered sailboats have been around for even longer -- since 3200 bce, or even earlier. The advent of engine-powered shipping relegated wind-powered boats to hobbyists, tourists and adventurers. But if the German company SkySails is right, we may soon see a return to shipping powered by the wind.

The notion is straightforward: a large parasail-type kite on a tow cable can add significant power to a standard diesel engine ship when lofted to 500 meters or so in the air. How much power? SkySails claims that a cargo ship can increase speed for a given fuel consumption by at least 10%, and often more; conversely, a sail-enabled ship can run at its standard speed but cut fuel consumption by as much as one-half. technology is more efficient at capturing wind power than standard sails, takes up less shipboard space, and supposedly does not require additional crew. Navigational software linked to real-time weather data routes for optimal wind speed and travel time. The design has won a number of German innovation awards, but has not yet been field-tested in its full configuration (at least as far as I can tell); SkySails proposes that the design would work not just for commercial vessels, but for ships of all types.

If SkySails works, the benefits are more than reduced fuel cost or shipping time. The SkySails site claims that "the toxic emission volume of the world trade fleet equals that of the United States." A system (such as SkySails) which can cut fuel consumption and reduce travel time would in turn reduce those emissions.

While there is something superficially absurd about massive cargo ships being pulled along by kites, upon reflection the notion makes sense. It's a novel form of "hybrid" power, taking advantage of strengths of diverse propulsion systems: the consistency of diesel engines and the free availability and startling strength of wind power. While SkySails still needs to demonstrate that their system works as claimed, we will undoubtedly see more of these "situational hybrid" power generation systems in years to come."