Could an Electric Ship With Solar Sails Be the Future of Cruising?

The prototype for the new high-tech, zero-emissions ship was recently unveiled.

A rendering of Hurtigruten's electric ship, with three solar-powered sails

A rendering of what Hurtigruten’s ship with solar powered sails might look like.

Courtesy of Hurtigruten

As a whole, the cruise industry doesn’t have a good reputation when it comes to sustainability—it accounts for roughly 3 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions. But a new type of ship could play a significant part in a new wave of more sustainable sailing.

Hurtigruten, a Norway-based cruise company, first announced its plans to create a fully electric passenger vessel in early 2022. Now the company has released an actual prototype of the ship and more details on how it will operate when it launches in 2030.

The futuristic, zero-emission ship, which will include 270 cabins that can sleep up to 500 guests, will be powered by electric batteries that charge when the ship is in port. Gerry Larsson-Fedde, senior vice president of marine operations for Hurtigruten Norway, estimates it will have a range of 300 to 350 nautical miles (about 345 to 403 land miles). It will also have retractable sails covered in roughly 16,150 square feet of solar panels that will help reduce reliance on the batteries when it’s windy. The high-tech sails will be telescopic, compressing to fit under bridges, and they will be able to change angles to best catch the wind.

The “Sea Zero” project is being carried out in collaboration with Norway’s Foundation for Scientific and Industrial Research (SINTEF) and various experts in finding technological solutions needed to achieve emission-free sailing.

Some of the technology needed is already in advanced stages; other elements will need more analysis and experimentation. The team is currently in a two-year research and development phase, which includes looking into things like how to make the ship more aerodynamic and how it can use AI to look at past sailings to help navigators maneuver through waterways more efficiently. But Larsson-Fedde said it’s reasonable to believe that the company will be ready to start building the vessel in 2027.

When the ship does hit the water, it will only sail the Norwegian Coastal Express route from Bergen, in the south of Norway, to Kirkenes, in the far north to start. It’s a route Hurtigruten has been sailing for more than 100 years already and it offers ample access to ports, allowing for the use of green energy infrastructure and existing shore power connectivity.

Eventually, Hurtigruten plans to turn its entire fleet electric—already two existing ships, the 530-passenger Roald Amundsen and Fridtjof Nansen, are hybrids, meaning they’re partially run on electric power. However, more advanced technology will be needed for future ships to reach some of Hurtigruten’s most remote destinations, like Antarctica and Svalbard.

Larsson-Fedde said that the company is looking for ways to involve guests and get them to understand how they can contribute to a more environmentally friendly vacation. One way is to provide them with an app that tells them in real time what the energy consumption of their stateroom is.

“They’ll see, ‘Oh, I’m using a lot of energy because my balcony door is open and my air-conditioning is running’ or ‘During my shower, I used a lot of water, and that amounted to this amount of energy,’” Larsson-Fedde said. “And then we could even have a list saying, ‘Your cabin is number 72 of all the cabins on the ranking of using the least amount of energy.’ So not forcing them, just making them more aware of their own actions, what that leads to in the form of energy consumption, and eventually helping the sustainability of our industry.”

Hurtigruten has long worked to make the cruising industry more sustainable (for that reason, AFAR named Hurtigruten’s CEO, Daniel Skjeldam, to its 2021 Travel Vanguard). In 2017, the cruise company partnered with the Clean Arctic Alliance to launch the HFO-Free Arctic Campaign, which strives to eliminate the use of heavy fuel oil in Arctic shipping. Its two hybrid electric-powered ships were the first in the world. And in 2018, the company banned all single-use plastic on its ships.

“Hopefully, the rest of the industry can look at this not as competition, but as help for them to also develop their own sustainable technology,” Larsson-Fedde said. “We all need to step up to the plate. I think sustainable sailing is going to be a license to operate in the future, so that’s why it’s important to start working towards it now.”

Bailey Berg is a freelance travel writer and editor, who covers breaking news, trends, tips, transportation, sustainability, the outdoors, and more. She was formerly the associate travel news editor at Afar. Her work can also be found in the New York Times, the Washington Post, National Geographic, Condé Nast Traveler, Travel + Leisure, the Points Guy, Atlas Obscura, Vice, Thrillist, Men’s Journal, Architectural Digest, Forbes, Lonely Planet, and beyond.
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