Protecting the grid, facilitating the future

Protecting the grid, facilitating the future

With the increasing adoption of electric vessels, and a growing need for shore power connections, how can ports and transport hubs safeguard the electric grids that serve them? Is there a need for a new wave of electrical infrastructure projects to modernize existing grids, or are there simpler, smarter solutions available?

“Electric vessels are both an opportunity and a challenge,” notes Marcus Martelin, Service Product Line Manager for Shore Connection and Hybrid Solutions, ABB Marine & Ports. “As an enabler for the decarbonization of the maritime industry they are essential, but for local electric grids they have the potential to be a serious challenge.”

Martelin explains that existing grids and systems, even in relatively large urban areas, are “simply not designed” with adequate capacity to accommodate the stepwise loads of vessels pulling up and plugging in. For example, a cruise ship, or container vessel, looking to connect to shore power, turn off generators, and radically reduce its fuel consumption and emissions will consume huge quantities of electricity from the grid for hours at a time. In contrast, electric car and passenger ferries, may only dock for a matter of minutes, but they require fast charging solutions with the potential to cause severe peaks in power demand. 

“In the worst-case scenario, weak systems simply overload,” Martelin says, “with undesired grid disconnection and in extreme scenarios large areas plunged into localized blackouts. In addition, such peak powers usually come at a high cost from the utility. That is not the kind of sustainable solution anyone is looking for.”

So, what can be done to protect distribution grids, especially in remote areas where existing grid infrastructure may not match modern charging requirements and a community desire for reliable, emission-free vessels?

Electric vessels are both an opportunity and a challenge

On the level

Traditionally, says Martelin, new distribution substation projects may be initiated to help bolster grid strength. However, these are time-consuming, expensive, often challenging, due to the need to build new infrastructure and lay cables, and in some cases civil works may be simply too disruptive or problematic. Here, Martelin points out that many key passenger ports are located in historic, protected town centers.

“But there is another way,” he adds, hinting at an easier solution to this clean energy conundrum.

Energy storage, with mixed capabilities of load levelling, peak shaving and the integration of local generation from renewables, is the key.

Martelin says that an increasing number of ports, driven by commitments to reducing emissions and, in some cases, the need to comply with local regulations, are investing in their own battery energy storage systems (ESS). By installing batteries on shore, ports can charge them throughout the day and night, without ever demanding grid-threatening peaks. A power-thirsty vessel can then plug in and have its appetite sated from both the grid and the batteries, with the latter ‘shaving’ demand on the former. The result is a level grid load.

“And when the vessel unplugs from the shore connection, the grid goes back to topping up the battery for the next ship, and the next,” Martelin adds.

“This type of energy storage and charging system is basically operating as a buffer to protect the grid, while also enhancing efficiency and energy cost control for the ports. It’s a win-win.”

He notes that batteries on board newly electrified vessels could also be charged entirely from shore side EES, while the grid provides shore power for the cold ironing / shore connection needs of other vessels.

“In this scenario it’d be desirable to increase the availability of renewable power sources,” he says, “allowing the batteries to charge back up for the next vessels without adding further demand for the grid.”

From safety to strength

Some early-mover ports are seeking to maximize the potential of such shore-side innovations with bold, holistic solutions. The Port of Toulon provides a case in point.

“The idea of producing energy at the ports with, for example, hydrogen fuel cells and photovoltaic panels is an exciting one with real future potential,” Martelin states. “As, of course, if we’re going to use this kind of solution as an enabler for green shipping then the electricity we source should be clean.”

An added bonus, he says, could be that any excess power either produced, or stored by the batteries, could be fed back into the local grid to support it at times of high demand. In that respect the battery solutions could go beyond safeguarding the grid to actually strengthening it.

“And that’d be of particular interest in more remote areas,” he comments.

The idea of producing energy at the ports with, for example, hydrogen fuel cells and photovoltaic panels is an exciting one with real future potential.

No compromise

Passenger and car ferries are lifelines for isolated communities. Many of these are located in areas of natural beauty where the opportunity to reduce emissions from transportation has been enthusiastically embraced.

However, fleet renewal programs that introduce electric vessels also put immense strain on weak, rural grids.

Batteries, Martelin concludes, are on hand to help.

“We’re not just talking about a solution for major ports and terminals here,” he says, “but also an enabler for bringing low- and zero-emissions ferries to communities. By working together, local utility companies, transport firms, ports and harbors, and specialized suppliers like ABB can unlock greener, more sustainable transport without compromising the integrity of local grid networks.

“And that is a huge opportunity, for everyone.”


Port of Toulon

Toulon is France’s leading port for ferry services to the Mediterranean Islands of Corsica, Sicilia, Sardinia and the Balearics, serving over 1.6 million passengers a year, with approximately 1,300 vessel calls.

With a commitment to cutting emissions and enabling more sustainable maritime activity, Toulon initiated a project in 2019 to introduce cold ironing/shore connections for ships docking for in excess of 2.5 hours.

ABB delivered a comprehensive shore connection package of one complete substation, four frequency convertors, 40 high-voltage breakers, 30 low-voltage breakers, 10 transformers and a complete automation system. Four shoreside battery packs were selected as a central solution component, helping to protect (and potentially support) the local electric grid.

The first phase of the project is scheduled for completion in 2023, at which point three ferries and one cruise ship can simultaneously connect to satisfy their power needs.

Phase two will focus on clean power generation at the port, with a hydrogen facility and photovoltaic technology supplementing the existing supply. This energy can also be fed back into the grid to provide support at times of peak local demand.

Speaking of the development, Hubert Falco, President of the Toulon Provence Méditerranée Metropolis, says: “Toulon is the first Mediterranean port to supply power to all of its docks. This is an innovative project built on an intelligent energy flow management system with a unique energy mix. With the support of ABB as well as the Région Sud PACA and our partners, we are significantly improving air quality in the port, while maintaining business activity. The shore-to-ship power connection will eliminate more than 80 percent of pollutant emissions. It will also save 9,000 hours of vessels running on diesel annually. For the ferry activity in the city of Toulon alone, this adds up to a reduction in sulfur emissions equivalent to those of 50,000 cars in a year.”


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