A Norwegian-born mariner turned inventor and carbon crusader debuts a technology that may drastically reduce fuel costs and emissions at sea.
Erling Skaar started worrying about the way fishing boats burn dinosaur juice in 1973, when the Arab oil embargo drove prices up and supplies down. This choked off fuel to Dutch Harbor, the base camp and truck stop for Seattle's Alaska fishing fleet. At the time, Skaar, who’d started out in the Norwegian merchant marine at age 15, was running a new crab boat, the Silver Dolphin, out of Dutch. He started wondering how fishermen might burn less fuel and be less vulnerable to shortages and price hikes. Forty years later, those thoughts have led to an invention that might enable the fishing industry to do just that, not only here but around the world — one more chapter in Seattle’s long history of innovation in this ancient but increasingly tech-heavy industry.
Today, as then, fishing boats burn a lot of fuel. In most businesses, labor is the largest recurring expense; in fishing, it’s diesel. The easiest and perhaps most effective way to save it, Skaar realized, was simply to slow down. “Running full speed, say with a 399 engine, you can make eleven-and-a-half knots and burn 60 to 63 gallons an hour. Slow down to 10 knots per hour and you’ll burn 24 gallons an hour. If everyone in fishing were more disciplined with fuel in Alaska, we could save millions annually.”
For 41 years another Seattle company, FloScan, has been helping fishermen and other boat operators save fuel. It makes onboard, real-time fuel monitors that tell how much they’re burning and when they reach the slow-sipping “sweet spot.” FloScan’s monitors are specially designed for the rigors of marine use, but any driver of a Prius or other monitor-equipped late-model car knows how drastically consumption can vary depending on conditions. Erling and Sten Skaar talk in this YouTube clip about all the savings FloScan helped them realize on their current crab boat, the North American (which starred with Captain Sten in TV’s Deadliest Catch — “stupid show,” snorts father Erling).
But not even all Nordics have the Skaars’ Nordic thrift and discipline. Erling Skaar recalls once running a salmon tender for the giant Ocean Beauty Seafoods. A buddy told him his boats was “too frequent at the fuel dock.” Turned out the captain he’d hired ran full-throttle all the time. “What’s the problem?” the man asked when confronted. “We’re not paying for it.”
“Somebody is,” replied Skaar. And that’s less money they have to pay you.
Also, more soot and carbon dioxide you’re sending up the stack. Skaar professes himself neutral on questions of global warming, but he’s clearly concerned. He’s even more concerned about climate change’s so-called “evil twin,” carbon-driven ocean acidification, which threatens shell-building organisms — not just larval oysters, the celebrated canaries in this coal mine, but the tiny floating snails and crustaceans on which salmon and the rest of the marine food web depend. So much so he attended the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Change Conference to make sure the fishing community’s fears were heard.
There’s the paradox, and the irony: Fishermen have the most to lose to our uncontrolled mass experiment on the planet’s climate and the ocean’s chemistry. But head for head and dollar for dollar, they’re among the biggest contributors of the emissions driving that experiment. Surely there were other ways besides monitoring fuel use and dialing back speed to help them cut back?
About 12 years ago, Skaar hit on one: the auxiliary power units (APUs), smaller diesel engines that drive the generators that power the refrigeration, navigation, lights and other systems aboard large vessels. On locomotives and long-haul trucks, which are now widely adopting them, APUs are big fuel savers. They let operators turn off their noisy, smoky, fuel-guzzling main motors while parked, to the great relief of the beancounters, not to mention Interbay residents and other railyard neighbors.
But aboard ships, which spend much longer periods underway, auxiliary power units are major fuel sinks. That’s because they continue powering the generators, redundantly and inefficiently, at sea as well as in port. Inventors and entrepreneurs have tried and failed for decades to instead draw steady, reliable electrical power off the massive main engine, through all its fluctuating RPMs. The prospect has become even more attractive as ports install shoreside power to reduce pollution. It might be possible to eliminate APUs entirely.
Skaar set up as Gen-Tech Global in a second-floor office in the maritime strip along Leary Way, the holdout “demilitarized zone,” as he calls it, between gentrified Ballard and Fremont. From there, he says, “we tried everything, even magnetic couplings” to draw steady power off the main engine. “It didn’t work.”
Finally he settled on a hydraulic pump that would transfer power from the main engine’s spinning shaft to a hydraulic motor, which would drive the electric generator. The problem — ultimately a software problem — was regulating the pump to maintain a steady flow. Skaar solved it with the help of a couple “rocket scientists” from Norway — one his cousin Ralph, the other an engineering professor who was so intrigued he came to Seattle, spent more than three years on the project, and became a partner. He devised the software that assures the critical steady flow.
Last year Skaar received a patent for the system, freeing him to go out and market. He’s shunned venture capitalists, funding Gen-Tech from his maritime pension and, with his employees, retaining ownership. They have four prototypes deployed now, on vessels based in Seattle, Norway, Malta and New Bedford, Mass. Various trials have returned bracing results. One by FloScan found net “phenomenal” fuel savings, about 13 to 26 percent at lower vessel speed and half that at high speed — and, even more impressive, a 45 to 50 percent reduction in nitrous oxides, which are potent greenhouse gases, potential acidifying factors, and human health hazards. Seattle’s Jensen Marine attested to observing similar fuel reductions in another demonstration.
Skaar touts other benefits from losing the auxiliary power units: space savings, noise and exhaust reductions, far fewer moving parts and maintenance costs. “We ran it problem-free [in his crab boat] for 12,000 hours. The only thing we had to change was a bearing — a $500, two-hour job.”
All this, he claims, for an upfront cost, depending on size, of $30,000 to $75,000, comparable to the cost of auxiliary power units. Trouble is, the boats already have APUs, and as Skaar knows well, his brethren are conservative types, loath to pay up front for something new. He’s considering “leasing the units and taking 80 percent of the savings, for perpetual cash flow.” If that ever happens, humble Frelard might become the center of a global engine-room empire, harvesting cash from fuel savings on all the seas.