Paving the way to zero-emission cruising

Paving the way to zero-emission cruising

Ambitious Norwegian cruise company Northern Xplorer (NX) aims to make a splash with sustainable cruising for thinking travellers, using eco-friendly ships powered by batteries and hydrogen fuel cells.

“For NX, exploring means interacting with local people, the landscape, and culture. As well as delivering a great passenger experience, we also want to make a positive contribution to the local communities we visit,” says Rolf André Sandvik, CEO at Northern Xplorer. “We respect there will always be a market for big vessels, but for those people who want something new, more up close and personal, and that they can feel good about – that’s what we are offering.”

Experience tourism is where it’s at

Sandvik and his partners officially launched NX in December 2021 following three years of careful groundwork. Under the slogan ‘Destination Discovery’, their vision is to introduce a new type of cruising providing immersive, enriching experiences for discerning guests committed to responsible travel with a minimal footprint.

Rolf André Sandvik, CEO at Northern Xplorer - image credit Mark Fuhrmann, Blue-C
Rolf André Sandvik, CEO at Northern Xplorer - image credit Mark Fuhrmann, Blue-C

A strong motivator for Sandvik and his team was to develop and to build a niche cruise line with sensibly sized ships that that can travel into fjords and rivers, and destinations not visited by traditional river cruises or oceangoing vessels. “Our product is positioned in the unoccupied gap between them,” he says.

Regulators get tough
Sandvik says there has also been a clear lack of focus on zero emissions in vulnerable areas. New regulations introduced in 2018 by the Norwegian government stipulating emission-free maritime traffic in Norway’s world-heritage fjords from 2026 provided the kickstart for NX. “It opened a market opportunity not covered by the major cruise lines, and we are filling it.”

NX’s ultimate objective is a series of 14 identical sisterships accommodating 250 to 300 passengers in 125 to 150 cabins served by up to 100 crew. The first is planned to be operational from 2024/2025. The 130-meter-long, 22-meter-beam design has been executed by Norwegian ship design specialists Multi Maritime AS, who are experts in designing ships for the harsh Nordic environment. The hull has been carefully calibrated for optimal stability and performance.

Interiors will be contemporary Nordic – cozy and warm in winter, cool and airy in summer. “Guests will feel instantly at home. We are putting a strong focus on high comfort of public areas inside and outside for maximum panoramic enjoyment of the Nordic scenery in every season,” Sandvik says.

Harnessing the power of H2
The ships will be powered by a combination of type-approved hydrogen fuel cells and batteries charged with clean shore power when in port. “ABB, with whom we are cooperating, is already well advanced in the collaborative development of fuel cell systems, and has wide experience in integrating energy storage. Operational efficiency and safety have been our top priorities, with full redundancy built in. This combination, together with Azipod® propulsion units, ensures excellent energy efficiency while substantially cutting noise and vibration, improving passenger comfort and minimizing disturbance to the marine environment,” says Sandvik.

The only by-product of burning hydrogen is water, which can in turn be reused on board. The NX ships will not be spending long periods at sea, reducing the space required for hydrogen storage. Sandvik says they did not consider using any other kind of cleaner fuel derived from fossil sources, such as LNG.

One key challenge for NX is that maritime regulations addressing hydrogen-based propulsion systems are not yet in place. “Using the IMO’s alternative design procedure we can absolutely solve this challenge with the support of forward-leaning class associations and the Norwegian Maritime Authority, which is very results-oriented,” says Sandvik. He adds that the ships will obviously be in compliance both with all the relevant international codes, including SOLAS and Safe Return to Port (SRtP) regulations, and class notations for passenger ships to ensure safe operations at all times.

Infrastructure in the pipeline
Meanwhile, huge steps are being taken in the formation of a hydrogen supply-chain ecosystem in Norway. “The build-up of both hydrogen and marine battery production is robustly backed by the goodwill of the Norwegian authorities. Shore charging infrastructure and technology is also already well developed for battery-powered ferries, where Norway leads the world in innovation.”

NX has already signed letters of intent (LoIs) with companies offering green hydrogen to the marine market, and fully intends to use green hydrogen from the first day of operation. Its itineraries will be built around those destinations that already have quayside recharging infrastructure, or are planning to. “Onshore power, certainly in Norway, comes largely from renewable hydropower, which reduces our carbon footprint further,” says Sandvik.

The plan is also to pilot supplementary wind and solar power on later ships in the series. “Each consecutive vessel will adopt new and better technology, which gives us flexibility to always opt for the best solutions as they become available.”

The ships will also be performance-optimized for maximum energy efficiency, including advanced electronics for optimal power management. Other sustainable systems include state-of-the-art HVAC that will minimize the risk of viruses spreading, waste heat recovery to conserve energy, and effective waste management.

Circularity in practice
NX is also promoting the circular economy by using recycled and recyclable materials as much as possible, from recycled content in the metal superstructure to environmentally friendly textiles, and zero single-use plastic of course. “In terms of food, we aim to use products available locally in our principal ports and smaller destinations, not trucked in by road for hundreds of miles,” says Sandvik.

The first ship will start in Norway – the fjords in summer and Northern Lights in winter – with future expansion to other Nordic destinations and beyond. “Our natural growth trajectory is Europe, for example Croatia, Monaco, the French Riviera and other points in the Med where green energy becomes available or stricter emissions regulations are introduced. We undertake not to hook up to charging stations delivering electricity from coal or oil-fired power plants. Charging batteries from non-green sources we see as meaningless,” he says.

End-to-end transparency
“We pledge to be transparent in all our activities, which is why lifecycle assessment of our offering is important for us so we walk the talk on zero emission travel. When it comes to air travel, we will scrutinize airlines for who has the youngest and most fuel-efficient aircraft, as well as carbon offset programs, and recommend these operators to our guests. After that we want them to experience travel with the least imprint. We plan to implement a ‘Train-Sea’ program between turnaround ports, as well as electric buses between certain destinations,” Sandvik says.

He adds that the project is economically sustainable with the prospect of generating consistent returns. It is also socially sustainable by providing great value for money and empowering value creation for stakeholders including local communities. “Moreover, we are fully committed to diversity and inclusion with full governance transparency. We believe NX will provide the kind of ships future cruise tourists really want, as well as being fantastic to work on for the crew.”

‘A clean slate’

Sandvik adds that the advantage of building a zero-emission cruise line from scratch is you have no legacy assets, history, or peculiar guest expectations. “We are starting with a clean slate. This gives us the opportunity to think outside the box, where we can create a whole new experience. Sustainability is built in both on board and ashore. Opting to use Multi Maritime, which had not previously designed cruise ships, also means we brought in new eyes and fresh ideas.”

He also emphasizes the experience and competence of the NX leadership team, and the fact that they have brought similar projects to fruition in the past. Sandvik himself is a master mariner with extensive cruise line experience from NCL and Crystal Cruises, including senior roles in destination development. In 2014, he founded travel company The Fjords, based in Flåm in western Norway, where as CEO he ushered in a new era of environmentally friendly sightseeing, commissioning ground-breaking hybrid-electric vessels including the Vision of the Fjords (built 2016), which went on to win the ‘Ship of the Year’ award during maritime trade fair SMM in Hamburg.

NX represents the next step of Sandvik’s personal journey to green the waterborne tourist industry. “Scaling up what we seeded at The Fjords to sustainable cruising on brand-new vessels compliant with the strictest global regulations is the best way to show environmentally conscious visitors the amazing nature and culture of the Nordic countries,” he says.

Trusted partner

Sandvik is also a return customer for ABB, which supplied the hybrid package for the Vision of the Fjords. “I’m very happy cooperating with ABB again to enable sustainable cruise operations. They are a heavyweight technology innovator with deep domain knowledge and experience.”

“ABB is committed to supporting the shipping industry’s low-carbon future. Whichever decarbonization strategy shipowners opt for, we have the technologies to support more sustainable operations,” says Dick Björkqvist, Global Segment Manager, Cruise, ABB Marine & Ports.

Dick Björkqvist, Global Segment Manager, Cruise, ABB Marine & Ports
Dick Björkqvist, Global Segment Manager, Cruise, ABB Marine & Ports

ABB also has the know-how to deliver complete through-the-line packages that take in not only energy storage and fuel cells, but also propulsion drives, including Azipod® units, power generation and distribution, bridge systems, and vessel automation.

With its global service capability, he adds that ABB is the ideal long-term partner for owners and operators over the lifetime of their vessels.

“They can count on us. We’ve been in the market for a long time and we’ll be around for a long time to come.”


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