New Technology Uses Good Old-Fashioned Wind to Power Giant Cargo Vessels

Well over a century after the Age of Sail gave way to coal- and oil-burning ships, climate change concerns are prompting a new look at an old technology that could once again harness wind to propel commercial cargo ships — this time with the goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Imagine what looks like Boeing 747 wings with movable flaps, set vertically on a ship’s deck. The vessel cruises under minimum power from its giant engine as computerized sensors adjust the fiberglass wings to take advantage of the wind’s speed and direction. This wind-assisted propulsion saves a substantial amount of fuel and reduces the carbon belching from the ship’s stack. Many experts think the idea has the potential to navigate the notoriously dirty shipping industry toward a greener future.

“Shipping is kind of unique,” says Gavin Allwright, secretary-general of the International Windship Association (IWSA), a not-for-profit trade organization that advocates for wind propulsion in commercial shipping. From antiquity, ships used clean and free wind energy, “then we carbonized and now we’re going back to zero carbon.”