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Catching wind: How to harnesses air for low-carbon shipping

Sailboat

Amid a global push to cut emissions, shipping is looking to the winds.

Climate and Capital Media

Originally published on Climate and Capital Media and reprinted with permission.

Ever since he was little, growing up sailing along the coast of Brittany, Guillaume Le Grand was awed by the power of the wind. Now 39, Le Grand has harnessed that power in an emerging trans-Atlantic shipping company that uses wind power instead of fossil fuels.

Launched in 2009, TransOceanic Wind Transport (TOWT) is sailing along five nautical routes, including regular trans-Atlantic crossings, to transport goods ranging from wine to cocoa beans.

As founder and president, Le Grand said the company’s wind-powered, no-carbon vessels cater to high-end clients that seek to be climate positive. By using smart tracking systems, the TOWT allows customers to track their shipments and know how many carbon miles they are saving by avoiding traditional fossil fuel-burning ships.

"With pressure to act on climate change growing, I believe shipping is on the eve of a revolution," he said. "The polluting nature of large-scale commercial shipping is something that eventually we just can’t do anymore."

As of 2019, the value of global shipping was an estimated $14 trillion with more than 11 billion tons of goods transported by ship each year. The vast majority of this shipping is powered by diesel fuel, and it is estimated that the shipping industry contributes 3 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Historically, Le Grand said, maritime companies have focused primarily on making deliveries as cheap as possible, regardless of the cost to the environment. Without any regulations governing ocean pollution, the industry suffered few consequences. 

Maritime companies have focused primarily on making deliveries as cheap as possible, regardless of the cost to the environment.

But amid a global push to cut emissions, the industry is beginning to change.

"We find that our clients think their products are worth being transported in a better way," Le Grand said.

While recent efforts by large shipping companies to lobby for a carbon tax and the rise of organizations such as the Clean Cargo Alliance and Green Marine to establish better environmental practices for shipping are a good start, Le Grand said it’s far from enough. 

"There’s been enough lying by the shipping industry," Le Grand said. "You can’t put green paint on large-scale shipping given the way it pollutes, and we don’t have another 10 years of not doing anything about it."

Le Grand said the sailing approach offers a climate-friendly alternative right now.

"We share the idea that what we are doing should be positive for the planet," he said. "Shipping on a sailing ship is cost-competitive. It also offers an added climate benefit that our customers value." 

Shipping on a sailing ship is cost-competitive. It also offers an added climate benefit that our customers value.

TOWT has four shareholders working to raise $72 million to acquire four ships through international shipping finance banks and a few blue economy investment funds.

"We’ve charted over 18 sailing ships since we started between [66 and 148 feet] long with a carrying capacity of between 10 and 100 tons," Le Grand said. "We’ve moved over a thousand tons of cargo and saved about 1500 tons of CO2. Over the years, we’ve defined what the ideal ship size is, the size of crews needed and the routes that work based on seasons and weather and, of course, the commercial constraints of the clients."

TOWT is not alone in providing low- or zero-carbon shipping for cargo.

"With awareness about climate change and the blue economy growing, we expect more brands will want low carbon shipping options," Le Grand said. "TOWT is planning for growth."

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