Could This Futuristic Vessel Be the World’s First Zero-Emissions Cruise Ship?

Hurtigruten Norway’s new design includes batteries and retractable sails equipped with solar panels

Rendering of futuristic cruise ship
The ship has three retractable sails covered in solar panels. VARD Design

A futuristic vessel that runs on batteries and has huge, retractable solar sails could become the world’s first zero-emission cruise ship, according to plans unveiled this week by cruise line Hurtigruten Norway.

The company, which has been sailing up and down the Norwegian coast since 1893, wants to launch the pioneering ship in 2030. Envisioned as part of the cruise line’s emissions-cutting “Sea Zero” project, the vessel will rely primarily on power from 60-megawatt rechargeable batteries. Since renewable energy sources provide nearly all of the electricity in Norway—some 98 percent of it—the batteries will have the added benefit of drawing on clean energy while in port.

In addition, the ship will harness the power of both the wind and sun. Crew members will be able to deploy three massive, 164-foot-tall sails covered with 16,000 square feet of solar panels from the ship’s upper deck when it’s windy or sunny.

And, depending on the time of year and the ship’s location, the panels could soak up plenty of solar power. In the summer, the northern parts of the country experience the “midnight sun,” or 24 hours of daylight, because of their high-latitude positioning on the globe. The rest of Norway, meanwhile, also benefits from very long days in June, July and August. During the winter months, though, it can get quite dark in the country, with the sun only appearing over the southern part of the nation.

Cruise ship rendering
The sails will help the ship harness energy from the wind and sun. VARD Design

The batteries, however, are expected to propel the ship between 300 and 350 nautical miles before needing a charge, per CNN’s Nell Lewis. The vessel’s aerodynamic design will cut down on drag to reduce energy use, and the ship can also rely on its sails in the right conditions to conserve its batteries, per Hurtigruten Norway’s statement. In case of emergency, a backup engine will generate power, but it will run on eco-friendly fuels like methanol, biofuel or ammonia.

To advertise the environmentally friendly design, Hurtigruten plans to display the battery levels on the ship’s exterior for all to see. They’ll also invite passengers to reduce their water and energy consumption while onboard by encouraging them to download an interactive climate monitoring app. As designed, the ship will be able to accommodate up to 500 passengers and 99 crew members.

Other innovations in the proposed design include artificial intelligence maneuvering capabilities, retractable thrusters, improved hull coating and contra-rotating propellers, which are meant to be more efficient than standard propellers.

Rendering of cruise ship in scenic area
The ship's batteries will recharge in ports along the coast, drawing on renewable energy sources used for electricity throughout Norway. VARD Design

To develop the prototype, Hurtigruten worked with SINTEF, a Norway-based research institute, and 12 maritime partners. They’ll test the design over the next two years, then make any necessary tweaks by 2026. In 2027, the company hopes to begin constructing the first vessel, with a plan to launch it three years later. Eventually, Hurtigruten Norway hopes the zero-emission ships will make up its entire fleet.

The company began sailing 130 years ago to help solve a uniquely Norwegian problem: During the late 19th century, people lived all along the country’s rugged, fjord-lined, 780-mile coastline. But traveling between Norway’s northern and southern regions was extremely difficult—for both people and goods—because existing transportation options were limited, spotty and inconvenient.

The Norwegian government put out a call for proposals—and a captain from the north, Richard With, won the job. Sailing his steamer, the DS Vesteraalen, With began operating a weekly express route between Trondheim in the south and, depending on the time of year, Tromsø or Hammerfest in the north. He also started a service between Bergen and Kirkenes that took only seven days, and, thus, the company’s name was born: “Hurtigruten” means “the fast route.”

Coastal residents came to rely on the ships, which reliably delivered mail, freight and passengers. Even today, Hurtigruten still runs its Norwegian Coastal Express route, which stops at 34 ports spanning the coast. It’s part ferry, part cruise ship: Passengers get on and off at every stop as they head to work or to visit friends and families, while others stay onboard for the entire journey.

Ship in Norway
Since 1893, Hurtigruten has run its Norwegian Coastal Express route along the coast, transporting passengers and goods. Hurtigruten Norway

Hurtigruten has since expanded its footprint outside of Norway to include expedition cruises to destinations like Antarctica, the Galápagos Islands, Alaska, Europe and the Caribbean. The company also launched the world’s first hybrid cruise ship in 2019 and is working to upgrade more of its fleet to hybrid vessels.

Though the new ships are forward-looking, they’ll still carry on the company’s long standing tradition of transporting freight and vehicles: Among all the modern innovations, designers made sure to leave room for a spacious cargo hold, per the their statement.

Though Hurtigruten Norway is small, its leaders hope their zero-emission design will demonstrate what’s possible to other shipping companies. Despite promises to slash emissions, the industry as a whole is “far too slow and not ambitious enough,” as Hedda Felin, the company’s CEO, tells CNN. Worldwide, shipping accounted for 2.89 percent of manmade greenhouse gas emissions in 2018. And ships, internationally, are largely gas-guzzling—only 0.1 percent use zero-emissions technology, according to the Hurtigruten statement.

But cruises, with their large footprint, might be an effective sector to target in an energy transition. Among all types and sizes of vessels, cruise ships have the highest average emissions—producing more than 20,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year.

“We don’t want to be alone,” Felin tells Fast Company’s Adele Peters. “We need the entire industry to pull up our sleeves and work a bit harder.”

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