The beauty of batteries: Hurtigruten's Roald Amundsen

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The Roald Amundsen is the world's first hybrid electric cruise ship.

VANCOUVER -- In the age of sustainability, this is the new sexy: a fluorescent-lit room deep in the interior of a cruise ship with several powerful fans and white cases with racks filled with blue blinking LED lights.

The fans are to keep the room cool, dissipating the heat from dozens of electrical storage batteries.

The room is found on Hurtigruten's Roald Amundsen, the world's first hybrid electric cruise ship.

You don't have to be around Hurtigruten CEO Daniel Skjeldam for very long before he starts waxing poetic about the beauty of batteries.

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A ship's engineer on the Roald Amundsen in one of the two battery rooms. Photo Credit: Tom Stieghorst

"We like to say she's electrifying," Skjeldam said at a press conference here aboard the 530-passenger vessel named for polar explorer Roald Amundsen. "This is a ship that opens a new chapter in maritime history."

Battery power, still in its infancy, enables the 460-foot-long ship to cut its emission of air pollutants by 20%, Hurtigruten says. It's still far away from being able to power a ship for an entire cruise, however.

The Roald Amundsen can cruise on batteries alone for 20 to 30 minutes. In practice, it doesn't happen that often. Engineers on the Amundsen say that by using the batteries to meet surges in power demand, they can operate the engines at maximum efficiency. So called "peak-shaving" employs fewer engines run at a level speed, day and night, storing power for those moments when it is needed. 

Ships have multiple engines. An off-line engine kicking into action produces a surge of nitrous oxide, soot and other harmful emissions. Keeping that from happening is another way that battery power reduces pollution.

Skjeldam said that emitting less pollutants is especially important for cruise lines that spend a lot of time cruising in pristine Arctic and Antarctic waters. "We are very, very focused on walking the walk. You meet a lot of companies that talk the talk. They're about talking about everything they're going to do in the future, but they're not so interested in talking about what they are doing now. We are the opposite."

The batteries that partly power the Roald Amundsen were developed by a Norwegian/Canadian company called Corvus Energy, which also has an agreement to provide batteries to German line AIDA Cruises.

Skjeldam said the Roald Amundsen and sister ship Fridtjof Nansen have a lot of extra space built into their battery rooms so that additional racks can be installed. "The way the ship operates today, we don't need more batteries, but we're envisioning a lot to happen in shore power, a lot will happen in the years to come, so that is why we're setting aside more room," he said.

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Powerful fans cool the battery rooms on the Roald Amundsen. Photo Credit: Tom Stieghorst

Corvus is reporting that its next generation of batteries will be an improvement of nearly 400% over those supplied to the Roald Amundsen when it was designed four years ago.

In Hurtigruten ships used only on the Norwegian coast and not for international expedition duty, the company will begin experimenting next year with biofuel made from fish farm waste.

"We think at the moment the future is more likely to go in that direction than in the direction of ships that operate only on batteries," Skjeldam said.

When re-reading some of Amundsen's old papers, researchers for Hurtigruten came across a passage he wrote in 1882 as a 10-year-old, envisioning electric ships that could break through the Arctic ice to reach the pole.

"What an inspiration!" Skeldjam marveled. "Our plan is to sail 100% emission free in the future," he said. "It is not possible today, or we would do it. But we think this will be possible and is not too far away from reality."

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