Swappable shipping container batteries help Heineken go green

Zero Emission Services has a clever idea for electric propulsion: shipping container batteries. Filling a standard container with batteries means they can provide the energy for a barge’s propulsion system – and be swapped out for a new one when they have been drained.

The first vessel to use the system, the Alphenaar, is also the the first electric inland shipping vessel in the Netherlands. She went into service in September along the canal route from Alphen aan den Rijn to Moerdijk, carrying a shipment of Heineken beer on her maiden voyage.

45,000 containers of beer for world market

The Dutch brewery has a commitment to going green. As a ‘Sustainability Partner’ in the ABB FIA Formula E electric car championships, it launched its first sustainable bar concept in July at the London e-Prix, and all Heineken beer in the Dutch market has been brewed with 100% green energy since September 2020.

It has signed a 10 year contract with barges using the shipping container batteries – called ZESpacks – that will transport 45,000 containers of beer annually from the brewery in Zoeterwoude to the port of Rotterdam for international shipping from there.

Jan Kempers, Heineken Sustainable Development Program Manager, said “Our goal is to make an impact by building the foundations of zero-emission logistics for all the ships in the Netherlands. And potentially all the ships on inland waterways in the world.”

Read about the floating battery terminal for recharging boats in Amsterdam’s canals

The company behind ZESpack shipping container batteries was founded in June 2020 by a group of large players from: maritime technology innovator Wärtsilä, energy company ENGIE, Dutch financial institution ING, and the Port of Rotterdam, supported by the Netherlands Ministry of Infrastructure & Water Management and the Province of South Holland.

Simple system for vessel owners

Aside from the obvious technical challenges that go along with any project of this scale, the system is remarkably simple and makes an enormous amount of sense. 

shipper container battery with other containers as the barge Alphenaar goes along canal

Wärtsilä, which manufactures everything from ocean sensors to engines for cruise ships, developed and builds the ZESpacks. Each one holds 45 battery modules with a total of 2 MWh hours of energy storage – about the capacity of around 36 electric cars. The containers have a safety and communications system and a standardized plug connector.

Currently the batteries themselves are lithium-ion, but in the future the energy storage could be hydrogen, ammonia, or something else.

First shipping container batteries lithium-ion

Engie developed the charging stations, which are certified to provide green energy. For the Alpherium the first station was built at the Combined Cargo Terminals (CCT) facility in Alphen aan den Rijn.

The final part of the link is that boats using the ZESpacks need to be converted and fitted with the standard plug connection and related software and management systems.

From there it is basically load the shipping container batteries in the same way you would any cargo, use the battery to run the electric propulsion, then swap in batteries as needed. Barges have a capacity varying from 500 to 1000 kW. With a ZESpack of 2000 kWh, a barge can sail for 2 to 4 hours; with 2 ZESpacks on board, it can travel a distance of 60 to 120 km.

The scalability is obviously the big attraction.

ZES shipping container batteries being constructedZES expects that by 2030 there will be 30 zero-emission shipping routes and 150 electric-powered ships on Dutch inland waterways, with about 20 docking stations and 300 shipping container batteries available. Inland navigation in the Netherlands currently accounts for 5% of the Dutch transport sector’s carbon emissions and 11% of the total NOx emissions, so the ZESpack system could have a big impact.

This is where the financing program provided by ING comes in. The system will operate on a pay-per-use basis, so the barge and boat owners and operators can immediately have access to upgrades.The ZESpack always fits on the connection, regardless of the type of energy in the container and ZES is releasing the profiles for the connector without rights, so that the market can work with various suppliers of energy containers.

The system also has other benefits. ZESpacks can be used to supply and store energy at any locations, like construction sites, film sets or festivals. Other vehicles can also use the charging stations, and they can act as energy hubs to help stabilize the grid during peak loads. 

Next up in Rotterdam, Moerdijk, Alblasserdam

Whether it is big boats or small, the challenge with electric marine propulsion is not usually the motors, but the batteries. ZES is hoping and betting that the ease of their system can speed up transition to fully electric water transport.

Read about the hydrogen push boat for France’s canals

Willem Dedden, CEO of ZES says “ZES offers authorities and companies a ready-made solution for increasing sustainability, and our concept contributes directly to the reduction of emissions by saving around 1,000 tonnes of CO2 and 7 tonnes of NOx per vessel per year.”

Using batteries that load and unload like standard shipping containers, having a universal plug and open-access charging infrastructure that is paid for on a per-use basis should go a long way toward taking some of the technical and financial pressures and unknowns away from vessel owners.

With the Heineken route now up and running, ZES is accumulating data and real life experience. They are already working with government authorities and carriers to contract the next vessels and develop the associated network of charging stations, starting in Rotterdam, Moerdijk and Alblasserdam.

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