Ship-watchers along the St. Johns River banks will be seeing double when the Taino makes its first sailing to Puerto Rico this week, powered by natural gas just like identical twin vessel El Coqui, which began sailing between Jacksonville, Fla., and Puerto Rico in October.
Taino’s arrival gives Jacksonville a fourth cargo ship powered by natural gas for Puerto Rico shipments, putting the port at the vanguard in using a fuel source that only recently became tried and tested in cargo ships. Jacksonville-based Crowley Maritime owns two of the ships. Tote, whose Puerto Rico division is in Jacksonville, operates the two other LNG ships.
The launch of El Coqui in October was celebrated by local and national officials for a ceremonial send-off complete with breaking a bottle of champagne over the hull. Crowley didn’t replicate the pomp for Taino’s maiden voyage Jan. 8, but the company invited news media organizations for a tour inside the ship and a behind-the-scenes look at the fuel storage facility that Eagle LNG Partners custom-built on the docks for Taino and El Coqui.
“This ship is state of the art,” Crowley CEO Tom Crowley said. “Really, there’s nothing like it in the world. … There are other ships in the world that burn LNG, but not a containership at this scale.”
He said using LNG “really is the wave of the future” as environmental regulations clamp down on air pollution from vessels traveling the high seas.
JaxPort CEO Eric Green said the LNG ships are “generational and transformative.”
“I think what we appreciate more than anything is that it happened here at JaxPort,” he said.
The natural gas for Crowley’s ships takes a journey as lengthy as a cargo shipment.
Crowley Maritime Corp.
The fuel travels to Jacksonville as a gas through the nation’s vast network of pipelines and is converted into a liquid form by an off-the-charts chilling process at an Eagle LNG Partners plant in Maxville, Fla. Dozens of tanker trucks then are loaded with the liquefied gas and carry it to the Talleyrand terminal, where Houston-based Eagle LNG built a fuel depot on the dock.
The fuel depot is the first of its kind in the world, Eagle LNG Vice President Linda Berndt said. “The design is totally new to this industry.”
At Talleyrand, the tanker trucks transfer the LNG to two huge holding tanks on the port docks. When the time comes to fuel Taino and El Coqui, the LNG is sent through a pipe under the dock to the ships, where a final connection conveys the liquefied gas into tanks inside the ships.
Eagle LNG uses nitrogen to chill the natural gas to about minus-260 degrees Fahrenheit, a chill so intense that the gas turns into a liquid. Unlike compressed natural gas, which relies on high levels of pressure to reduce the volume of natural gas, LNG doesn’t require high pressure during shipment.
From a perch dubbed the “eagle’s nest” at the fuel depot, technicians monitor the flow of the LNG into the ship, which takes just less than eight hours to complete the fueling. The volume is enough for a ship to make two round-trip journeys to Puerto Rico.
Inside the Crowley ships, storage tanks containing the liquefied natural gas keep it cold until the time is ready for it to be converted back into a gas that is burned to power cylinders in the ship’s four-story tall engine.
“They’re like giant Yeti cups,” Crowley engineering manager Chris Deschenes said of the storage tanks inside Taino. “They’re double-walled and vacuum-insulated. The fuel itself keeps it cold.”
In the event a problem arises with burning LNG, the ship is designed to immediately draw on diesel fuel so there isn’t an interruption in the journey, he said.
The new ships can travel to Puerto Rico in just more than two days, less than half the five-day trip it used to take for Crowley’s vessels to make the run. Crowley officials said that helps make Jacksonville a more competitive option for shippers who operate under the time-is-money approach to business. Each LNG ship can carry 2,400 cargo container units and 384 automobiles.
The two new Crowley ships and the upgrades at the port terminal for the ships costs a total of $550 million, Crowley spokesman David DeCamp said. While it’s a steep cost, Crowley expects to gain long-term financial advantages through fuel savings in its partnership with Eagle LNG.
“We took a very long time to spec out and bid what we needed because it didn’t exist and hadn’t ever been built before,” Tom Crowley said. “I think we ended up with a great partner because nobody knew exactly what it was going to look like in the end. At the same time, they made a substantial financial commitment themselves to a liquefication plant and the infrastructure that was needed, and we were able to lock in pricing over a long period of time.”
He said Puerto Rico, which suffered devastating damage from Hurricane Maria in 2017, remains a strong market for Crowley’s shipments. Jacksonville has long been a major hub for shipments to Puerto Rico, with tenants shipping about 737,000 cargo container units on the island trade route during the 2018 fiscal year, more than any other trade lane.
“From our perspective, the things happening now are very positive,” Crowley said. “For a while, there was a lot of bad news, a lot of tough situations being reported and discussed. When you go to the island and see what’s happening there, you see people making investments. You see people returning to the island. … They clearly hit bottom and they know what it’s going to take to rebuild, and that’s happening.”