Low-carbon methanol costly EU bunker option

  • : Biofuels, Oil products, Petrochemicals
  • 24/05/16

Ship owners are ordering new vessels equipped with methanol-burning capabilities, largely in response to tightening carbon emissions regulations in Europe. But despite the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions savings that low-carbon methanol provides, it cannot currently compete on price with grey methanol or conventional marine fuels.

Ship owners operate 33 methanol-fueled vessels today and have another 29 on order through the end of the year, according to vessel classification society DNV. All 62 vessels are oil and chemical tankers.

DNV expects a total of 281 methanol-fueled vessels by 2028, of which 165 will be container ships, 19 bulk carrier and 14 car carrier vessels. Argus Consulting expects an even bigger build-out, with more than 300 methanol-fueled vessels by 2028.

A methanol configured dual-fuel vessel has the option to burn conventional marine fuel or any type of methanol: grey or low-carbon.

Grey methanol is made from natural gas or coal. Low-carbon methanol includes biomethanol, made of sustainable biomass, and e-methanol, produced by combining green hydrogen and captured carbon dioxide.

The fuel-switching capabilities of the dual-fuel vessels provide ship owners with a natural price hedge. When methanol prices are lower than conventional bunkers the ship owner can burn methanol, and vice versa.

Methanol, with its zero-sulphur emissions, is advantageous in emission control areas (ECAs), such as the US and Canadian territorial waters. In ECAs, the marine fuel sulphur content is capped at 0.1pc, and ship owners can burn methanol instead of 0.1pc sulphur maximum marine gasoil (MGO). In the US Gulf coast, the grey methanol discount to MGO was $23/t MGO-equivalent average in the first half of May. The grey methanol discount averaged $162/t MGOe for all of 2023.

Starting this year, ship owners travelling within, in and out of European territorial waters are required to pay for 40pc of their CO2 emissions through the EU emissions trading system. Next year, ship owners will be required to pay for 70pc of their CO2 emissions. Separately, ship owners will have to reduce their vessels' lifecycle GHG intensities, starting in 2025 with a 2pc reduction and gradually increasing to 80pc by 2050, from a 2020 baseline.

The penalty for exceeding the GHG emission intensity is set by the EU at €2,400/t ($2,596/t) of very low-sulplhur fuel oil equivalent. Even though these regulations apply to EU territorial waters, they affect ship owners travelling between the US and Europe.

Despite the lack of sulphur emissions, grey methanol generates CO2. With CO2 marine fuel shipping regulations tightening, ship owners have turned their sights to low-carbon methanol.

But US Gulf coast low-carbon methanol was priced at $2,317/t MGOe in the first half of May, nearly triple the outright price of MGO at $785/t. Factoring in the cost of 70pc of CO2 emissions and the GHG intensity penalty, the US Gulf coast MGO would rise to about $857/t. At this MGO level, the US Gulf coast low-carbon methanol would be 2.7 times the price of MGO. By comparison, grey methanol with added CO2 emissions cost would be around $962/t, or 1.1 times the price of MGO.

To mitigate the high low-carbon methanol costs, some ship owners have been eyeing long-term agreements with suppliers to lock in product availabilities and cheaper prices available on the spot market.

Danish container ship owner Maersk has lead the way, entering in low-carbon methanol production agreements in the US with Proman, Orsted, Carbon Sink, and SunGaas Renewables. These are slated to come on line in 2025-27. Global upcoming low-carbon methanol projects are expected to produce 16mn t by 2027, according to industry trade association the Methanol Institute, up from two years ago when the institute was tracking projects with total capacity of 8mn t by 2027.


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