The world’s first electric-powered tanker, named Asahi, will go into service in Japan later this month. Tankers, of course, are boats that carry fossil fuels. And this particular tanker will be used for bunkering, or filling up the tanks of larger ships in or near harbors. In other words, the Asahi will soon become the world’s first electric vehicle to deliver 338,000 gallons of fossil fuel on demand.
The boat, which is owned by Asahi Tanker, is powered by a 3,480 kWh battery, according to Reuters, which notes this is equivalent to “about 100 batteries for a typical electric vehicle,” a comparison that may well be accurate for smaller Japanese vehicles but is sadly off for the U.S. market where popular EVs like the Model Y have battery packs in the 75 kWh range (meaning it's more like 50 Tesla batteries). The tanker has a range of around 100 kilometers (62 miles) and a top speed of 10 knots. It will charge at a dock operated by Tokyo Electric Power in Kawasaki, where it will require about 10 hours to charge, likely using a system similar to the ultra-fast DC fast chargers that can charge EVs at a top power draw of 350 kw.
“The vessel’s core energy system is completely electrified to achieve zero emissions of CO2, nitrogen oxide (NOx) and sulphur oxide (SOx),” Makoto Sawada, team leader of the EV project at Asahi Tanker, was quoted by Reuters as saying.
It’s an inspiring accomplishment for a boat whose job is literally to enable the usage and burning of fossil fuels in huge quantities. This particular tanker has a cargo capacity of 1,280 cubic meters, or 338,000 gallons, which is about as small as bunker ships tend to be. The largest container ships carry 4.5 million gallons of fuel, but smaller ones that can go through the Panama Canal typically hold between 1.5 million and 3.5 million gallons.
Cleaning up the cargo shipping sector is one of the toughest challenges facing the transportation sector in the next several decades because they burn massive amounts of fossil fuels and there is no promising alternative on the horizon. As the Asahi illustrates, powering a cargo ship with a battery is currently not possible because the battery would have to be too big. And efforts to make “carbon neutral” container ships with different fuel mixes are little more than greenwashing. The Asahi is not a technological breakthrough in cargo shipping sustainability, but a niche application of existing technology for a boat that travels very short distances to do a specific job.
Sure, naysayers might scoff at the idea that powering a ship that literally enables the mass burning of fossil fuels with electricity is a token accomplishment at best and the embodiment of all that is wrong with environmental capitalism at its worst, but the Asahi does not know or care about those debates. It is a boat powered by a big ass battery doing its part to save the planet, one 338,000 gallon shipment of fossil fuel at a time.