how high should oil prices get for sea shipping to switch to coal? can this realistically happen?

back before we used oil powered ships we had the coal powered steamboats. Presumably today that remains as a hypothetical alternative to oil, along with the equally hypothetical nuclear propulsion. Well, I say “hypothetical” because implementing this on large scale would probably require a lot of capital expenditure.

Well, so does the sea shipping consume enough oil per ton shipped to make it likely that such a switch would happen, given realistically high oil prices (e.g. maybe like what we saw during 2007 surge, only long term)? Or is the sea shipping just so efficient per ton shipped, so that let’s say long after much of land shipping is switched to railroad and gas generator trucks the ships would still run on oil?

One thing to make sure you take in account is refueling time. A ship that uses oil as a fuel can be refueled in hours, while one with an equal amount of coal could take days. This time sitting in ports waiting to be loaded with coal is time the ship could be using shipping something, and will affect the bottom line.

Now, it is possible to transform coal into oil, I just don’t know how much this costs, and how expensive oil needs to be to be worthwhile.

Hirka T’Bawa,

I am sure that modern technology and engineering ingenuity could solve the problem of fast loading if that problem were a big issue. Just because it was a big issue in the past doesn’t mean that it is an inherent problem with the mode of propulsion.

Large modern merchant ships tend to use really big diesel engines because these are very fuel efficient and require surprisingly little labor to operate. Switching to coal would be a setback in both areas.

There’s also the point that coal prices to some extent tend to track oil prices - if oil becomes quite expensive, it’s a good guess that coal won’t be dirt cheap.

I don’t imagine there are many coal burning propulsion systems just sitting around waiting to be installed.

Building and installation would likely take a long time.

Not going to happen.

The effeciency between a modern diesel and a steam plant is large. Infact no new ship is being build that is powered by steam.

The loading of coal could be done in a matter of hours. but would have to be done at a coaling dock. Whear as with barges it can be sone with barages anywhere.

Modern diesel ships have no man enginerooms. I do not believe it would be safe to leave no one in the boiler room. Moving coal from bunkers to the firing flats would require some labor. While moving oil can be done with one man and a pump.

Plus it would require building new ships.

Oil cost woudl have to be at lease twice the cost of coal before it could be done.

Oil cost is already more than twice the cost of coal, depending on what type of coal you’re comparing with. It’s possibly on the order of a 3-4 times difference. In 2006 the average delivered cost of oil for power generation in the US was 648 cents/MBtu, and for coal it was 169 cents/MBtu (3.83 times).

I’ve been involved in a study looking at conversion of ocean-going ships to Indonesian coal, and there are just a lot of logistical problems involved. Ash precipitation or filtration systems, ash handling and storage, the problems of spontaneous combustion and combustion “puffs” from outgassing (noted as far back as the 1800’s), creation of coaling stations (especially as most designs I’ve seen for new ships involve pre-pulverized or even pre-micronized coal), poorer efficiency of the steam plant on board…there are just way too many losers.

A couple of years ago there was a small push to convert some of the US locomotive fleet back to coal, with fuel costs being the primary factor. One of the folks who works in my group did a feasibility study, and it really didn’t have to go very far as the legal review showed that the EPA was not going to certify any new coal locomotive designs. Tuckerfan gave me a link to one such study one time; I can’t find it right now since I’m not at work.

Where can I get a nice lump of coal, say fist-sized?

Look in your Chirstmas stocking.

The hardware/lumber store nearby sells bagged nut coal, smaller than your fist, but suitable for a coal furnace.

So are you going to only address the direct costs? What about the indirect costs of using coal? You know, the pollution, the health issues, the permanent brain damage in children, global warming, etc?

Una Persson,

leaving the railroad locomotives aside, apparently the steam propulsion on ships somehow worked back in the day, before the diesel ships. Back then shipping costs were probably much bigger than now, but astronomical they were not (even though they didn’t have container ships and other modern ideas).

So is the problem now with overly restrictive EPA rules as applied to ships? Which, inter alia, would mean that nations that don’t care for such rules (like China) could go right ahead and do the smart thing. Or it’s just a matter of oil prices not yet high enough to justify amortizing the cost of conversion? In the case of trains, of course, China would presumably just use electrical locomotives in these circumstances.

Incidentally, I do recognize that an alternative might be liquifying coal and making artificial diesel, but I would guess that in such high oil price environment the price of coal that can be liquefied will be appropriately high, whereas the lower grade one would be much cheaper.

This is at least the second thread in which you’ve been given large numbers of economic reasons why a course of action won’t work, along with governmental legal issues, only to conclude that the government is the sole sticking point. (It’s at least the fourth thread in which your economic reasoning has been wrong.)

You’re wrong both times about government. Economics is the major factor. That there are additional reasons may also be true, but there are always additional reasons. Government regulations can be gotten around far easier than the marketplace.

I’m not sure why you still say your idea is the “smart thing” after so many have shown otherwise, but listening to people who, unlike you, have some experience and expertise in the issues would be a good place to start.

I confess I did not have my group study the specific regulations with respect to ships, only locomotives.

The international shipping industry is incredibly competitive, working to shave pennies off of every trip, and if there were any real net economic advantage to using coal or F-T process derived oil for ships, Indonesia, China, Singapore, India, and many other countries would be using them like you wouldn’t believe. Could it happen in the future? I’m guessing, as in IMO, that the cost differential would have to be on the order of 10:1 or greater for some time before anyone would seriously consider converting or building coal-fired ships for mainline transport again.

Exapno Mapcase,

selective quotation is a powerful tool. If you would read the ENTIRE comment that you have partially quoted, you would have seen that I brought up a straightforward counter-example - the steamboat shipping BEFORE the advent of diesel. That was also before the EPA, for that matter. I brought it up to illustrate that yes, a lot of international shipping IS possible based on coal. Now, I do understand that now doing it with diesel is cheaper, but I am discussing here whether the conditions may change to make it sensible again. As in, you know, “hypothetically”.

By “smart thing” I mean the smart thing in the particular circumstances, as defined by the actual economic costs and not by EPA mandates. Under some circumstances that smart thing could be coal propulsion, right?

Incidentally, you can see EPA blamed for striking down a locomotive conversion project in early stages in the previous comment by an expert, Una Persson. I wasn’t the one who brought the topic up.

I just want a biggish lump.

I found a nice lump of anthracite on eBay.

Way too many losers to make coal work. That’s a selection that you left out.

Una also answered that “I’m guessing, as in IMO, that the cost differential would have to be on the order of 10:1 or greater for some time before anyone would seriously consider converting or building coal-fired ships for mainline transport again.” That’s a large increase in oil costs that would have to take place simultaneously with no rise in coal prices. But coal prices would certainly also rise in such a situation, bringing the ratio back down. You also fail to examine all the alternatives like LNG or biodiesel which would require less costly retrofitting and be greener and cheaper in carbon emissions. If you start out with a hypothetical future then the solutions in that future will depend on the new variables and can’t be controlled by the biases of any one group. The cheapness and reliability of not having to tear out all power plants and not needing to rip supply chains apart may negate even large oil costs, while the known environmental dangers of coal may keep it from never entering the market in a big way. You’re stating that these changes would be superior without any evidence to support you. I’m not buying it.

I am not STATING anything. I am asking experts and I am presenting clarifying questions. One such clarifying question was the illustration of the ability of late 19th century Western civilization to do a great deal of international trade using coal powered steamboats. You don’t suppose I am trying to convince anybody here to invest into my steamship company, are you?

Thanks for telling me about the alternatives. I am glad to see that Una Persson is not the only expert here.

Ignoring any problems with pollution controls, I think that the biggest thing to look at is the difference between the maintenance and manning costs of a steam plant vs. a diesel plant.

Snipe 70E has already pointed out that there are many diesel plants that are operated without anyone in the engineroom - the computer monitors the operation of the diesel, and flags any unusual conditions for the bridge watch to have investigated. I suspect this means that a ship running on a diesel plant can get away with having one, or maybe two, trained diesel mechanics, to handle any minor problems might come up during a voyage. (Major problems are going to be beyond the means of shipboard repair, anyways.) Which makes for a fairly cheap payroll associated with propulsion. Maintenance costs for a diesel plant are similarly relatively cheap: there is some wear and tear on the moving parts, but having a good lube oil system going keeps the moving parts lubricated, cleaned, and cooled. Some of the contaminants in the fuel can be pretty active, but again AIUI most fuel oil these days is refined to minimize the sulfur content, which was the big corrosive contaminant I’d heard about back in the day.

With a steam plant your manning goes up considerably. For a quick comparison of how a steam plant can multiply manning considerations, consider two old USN cruiser classes: USS Ticonderoga class, which uses gas turbine power plants vs. USS Virginia class, which used nuclear fired steam plants. I can’t claim that they are exact duplicates except for their power plants, but they’re a pretty good match in size, mission, and armament. The Ticos had a crew (per Wikipedia) of under 400 men; the Virginias had a crew of just under 600 men. That’s a 50% increase. I’m not going to claim that all of those extra warm bodies were in the engineering department, but I believe that most of them were either there, or added to other departments to support the extra crew loading that the expanded engineering department required. And that’s comparing to gas turbine plants, which are more complex and require closer monitoring than a civilian diesel does.

Aboard Virginia we had a watch team any time the steam plant was in operation (and this is ignoring anyone whose duty was solely for reactor-only operations) that numbered about a dozen. Now you can’t make a complete comparison between civilian manning and naval manning: Naval plants run with more bodies because that’s the best way to deal with unforeseen situations. So, cut that in half for a civilian plant, and we’re still talking about having five or six people on duty at all times in your steam plant. To cover three shifts, that means you’ve replaced that single or two diesel mechanics with eighteen people, plus at least one extra cook, expanded crew quarters, greater food costs, and other hidden increases, just to accommodate your larger crew. Look at the M/V Maersk Alabama (a diesel merchant ship I could name off the top of my head) as standard - she has a total crew of 21. You’re nearly doubling your crew size to switch to steam. That’s going to really cause a jump in overhead costs.

Then there’s maintenance. Steam is a nasty bitch to deal with. It cuts metal, as well as other substances. It also means that your surfaces are all going to be covered in moisture, which is a great medium to promote corrosion. Even with a properly conditioned steam plant corrosion and wear are constant battles, requiring a lot more maintenance than a diesel plant does. Let even a little contamination get into your steam plant and the corrosion rates go through the roof. Which leads to the whole safety issue: steam kills. Diesel plants can be deadly, no question about that, but you don’t hear about diesel plants blowing up and cooking their whole crews. Steam explosions are a lot more common than any one wants to think about. I was active duty when the Iwo Jima LPH-2 cooked a whole watch standing crew. On the one hand, you can say that the accident was the result of a botched valve replacement, but the potential for that sort of disaster was there with the steam plant which required the more complex and more frequent maintenance than a similar diesel plant would have needed.

Also touching upon maintenance is that fueling a coal fired boiler plant is going to be more complex than fueling an oil-based boiler plant, let alone a oil-based diesel plant. At the very least you’ll have to have hoppers, conveyor systems, and means to control the coal from shifting at the ship rolls in heavy seas, and to balance the load as coal is burned. In the old days this was often done manually, but that would even further jump up the manning requirements mentioned above.

The old coal fired steam liners, freighters and tramps have a rosy, and romantic, image these days. You can get me waxing nostalgic about them very easily. But compared to a modern diesel plant they were very expensive to operate. And that, not any environmental regulation, is going to be what keeps them in the past.

The energy density of coal is much less than diesel. Diesel’s energy density is 10,942 Wh/l and 13,762 Wh/kg. Coal’s energy density varies with the type of coal, but is around 9444 Wh/l and 6667 Wh/kg. Wiki Cite. So for the same amount of energy it takes twice the weight of coal which will take up 20% more volume than the equivalent diesel.

The larger labor costs of burning coal have already been mentioned. The company I work for has several dozen coal burning boilers out there, and the direct labor costs are pretty low, but the cost of the automated equipment to keep them low is high, and the equipment itself is bulky.

If you’ve got the real estate to invest, and a use for the steam after it’s done spinning your turbines, coal is pretty economical, but for a portable energy source diesel is going to be your best bet.