Around 70% of the 4.6 billion tonnes of goods moved annually by the rapidly growing freight transport industry in India is being carried by trucks which despite representing just 3% of the total vehicle fleet, are responsible for 53% of PM emissions.

Compare this to the waterways sector which comprises coastal shipping and inland waterways transport. India’s waterways currently occupy a mere 6% share in cargo. However, it is a key economic contributor, adding up to USD 1.6 billion (INR 13,007 crore) as gross value added (GVA) in FY20, according to a study by the Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW).

It is estimated that India would witness a steep rise in cargo and passenger movement in the coming days, thus also increasing by leaps and bounds fuel consumed by these vessels and its consequent negative impact on the environment.

India is many navigable rivers, backwaters and creeks alongside thousands of kilometre-long coastline. As the government brings several initiatives to develop the sector, enable a transition and take a substantial part of the cargo load off the trucks, it is time perhaps to also focus on decarbonising the waterways sector with stress on alternate fuels and electrification backed by renewable energy sources.

Fig 1: The service across the Mandovi in Goa. (Express Photo: Amit Chakravarty)

Fuel guzzlers, GHG emitters

In India, around 2,000 passenger vessels and 1,600 cargo vessels operating on inland waterways were registered in 2019. The estimated emissions of the inland waterways transport (IWT) sector stand at about 277,000 tonnes of CO2 (tCO2) as of 2019, the CEEW study said. Similarly, it added that around 970 coastal shipping vessels operated as of 2019 in India, accounting for 1.6 million tonnes of fuel oil consumption and 5.1 million tonnes of CO2 (MtCO2) emissions.

The study estimated the annual cargo and passenger movement to increase by almost three times on inland waterways and by almost 1.2 times for cargo movement on coastal shipping between 2019 and 2030. Therefore, there is a need to fast track the decarbonisation efforts in this sector, that includes electrification of the vessels, to mitigate increasing emissions.

As far as inland waterways are concerned, as the cargo movement across national waterways increases, it is estimated that fuel demand will rise by about three times, resulting in a threefold increase in GHG emissions (from 31,000 tonnes of CO2 to 91,000 tonnes of CO2) in 2030, according to the CEEW study. In case of passenger transport through inland waterways, the energy demand is likely to grow threefold by 2030 (from 2,807 TJs in 2019 to 8,827 TJs in 2030), it said.

“The residual fuel oil and distillate oil demand from coastal shipping for freight is estimated to rise 1.2 times each in 2030 when compared to 2019. This will lead to an increase in CO2 emissions from 5 MtCO2 in 2019 to 5.5-6.1 MtCO2 in 2030,” the study said.

Between FY11 to FY20, cargo movement in the waterways sector grew at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 4.5%, and the movement of passengers by 5%. About 145 million (1,450 lakh) passengers take ferry rides annually across nine states in India, of which West Bengal accounts for the highest 55% share, it said.

The government has also come out with Maritime India Vision (MIV) 2030 that aims to increase multi-modality and share of inland waterway borne freight and passenger movement.

Fig 2: India’s first solar-powered electric ferry boat Aditya has been operational in Kerala since 2017

Why electrifying boats will help

Fully electric systems offer the possibility of zero lifecycle emissions when powered by renewable electricity. For example – India’s first solar-powered electric ferry boat, Navalt’s Aditya, has been in operation in Kerala since 2017 and can carry 75 passengers. It saves the Kerala Water Transport Department around Rs 46 lakhs annually, the CEEW study said, adding that “the transition to solar-assisted electric boats in the IWT passenger ferries can create a market size of around Rs 19,000 crore by 2030.”

Fig 3: The Kochi water metro provides the cheapest travel (HT_PRINT)

Some Indian states have shown the way

India’s first water metro service was started this year in Kerala’s Kochi in which 10 islands of the city have been connected by electric hybrid boats that are battery-operated. These boats, powered by Lithium Titanate Spinel batteries, are touted to be eco-friendly, electrically-propelled, and safe for differently-abled commuters.

Goa also unveiled a solar electric hybrid ferry boat operating between Chorao-Panjim route. The 60-passenger capacity ferry boat can run on electricity, solar power or diesel and will be used for ferrying only passengers and not vehicles. The state also plans to introduce more solar electric hybrid ferry boats on additional routes to reduce dependency on fossil fuels.

The Garden Reach Shipbuilders and Engineers Ltd, a Mini Ratna Category 1 Defence PSU, has signed a contract with the West Bengal government for the design and construction of the next-generation electric ferry to reduce carbon emission in the state’s water transport sector. According to GRSE authorities, the zero-emission full-electric ferry will be powered by a 210 kilowatt hour (kWh) liquid-cooled energy storage solution and ergonomically designed to carry 150 passengers with the provision of air conditioning seating arrangements.

Other ways to decarbonise waterways sector

LNG is a good option for small and medium vessels as it has lower SOx and NOx emissions and is also cost effective. It emits approximately 25 per cent less greenhouse gases while providing the same amount of power, the study said.

Ammonia and hydrogen are the other two alternatives as transitioning into them does not require a lot of modifications. However, many studies have favoured ammonia over hydrogen which, they argue, requires bulky, complex, and expensive storage systems. Others say ammonia is toxic to human and aquatic life, the study added.