Powering the remote corners of the world

Powerships are floating power plants that supply affordable electricity to millions of people. The Karadeniz Powership Onur Sultan, harboured in Indonesia, is not just one of the biggest – it could also be the cleanest, because it now runs on natural gas. Inside Energy reports.

By Soh Chin Ong on Apr 17, 2019

Indonesia, the world's largest archipelagic nation, is made up of some 18,000 islands of varying sizes. They stretch 1.9 million square kilometres.

Docked in the port of Medan, in the north of the country's largest island, Sumatra, is one of the world's biggest powerships – a power plant built onto a ship. The 300-metre-long Karadeniz Powership Onur Sultan has 24 engines and stretches the size of three football fields.

Powerships, which can run on heavy fuel oil and natural gas, play a unique role in a world where almost 1 billion people have no access to electricity.

The Indonesian government recently set out its electricity supply plan until 2026. It says mobile power plants like this are expected to play a role in supplying electricity to rural and remote areas in a country where more than 2,500 villages are still not connected to the grid.

The Karadeniz Powership Onur Sultan powership docked at sea
The 300-metre-long Karadeniz Powership Onur Sultan has 24 engines and stretches the size of three football fields

Towards a cleaner future

But it's not just about providing access to energy. The Onur Sultan, owned by Turkish company Karadeniz and one of four power ships in Indonesia, also switched to run fully on natural gas this year. Natural gas produces lower carbon emissions than heavy fuel oil when burnt to produce electricity. By 2025, Indonesia aims to have renewables make up 23% of its energy mix, from the current 4%.

"Renewables, like wind and solar, must co-exist with a complementary fuel and the most ideal option is gas which emits less carbon,'' says Chairani Rachmatullah, the former head of the oil and gas division of PT Perusahaan Listrik Negara (PLN), which commissioned Indonesia's four powerships.

"We wanted Karadeniz to ensure the ships could run fully on natural gas should the resource be easily and cheaply available,'' she adds.

This was certainly the case with the Onur Sultan, which is situated just 300km away from the Arun liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal in Aceh, north Sumatra.

Steady and reliable power

Since it arrived in North Sumatra in May 2017, the Onur Sultan has been supplying 240 megawatts of power, enough to run about 500,000 homes and giving Medan, the province's fast-developing industrial and tourism capital, steady and reliable power.

Fadjar Fadjar, who was born and lives in Medan, says this supervessel has made a difference to his everyday life. "Previously, we would experience electricity blackouts six to eight hours a day. But now, the air-conditioning doesn't cut off suddenly, the lights don't go off in the middle of the night and the food doesn't go bad because the fridges have stopped running,'' he says.

Fadjar, who works for Shell Indonesia, helped manage the Onur Sultan's transition from heavy fuel oil to gas. Shell had to adjust the blend of the lubricants used on the powership to suit each of the 24 engines.

"Lubricants are the blood of the engine," says Ozer Kiliccioglu, Shell's global business development manager for the power sector. "Because natural gas engines burn hotter than those running on heavy fuel oil, the lubricants are specially formulated to help operate in severe conditions and provide high engine efficiency.''

Zeynep Harezi sits at table

A unique mission

"Natural gas is a reliable and versatile source of baseload power which can be paired with renewables as that market grows,'' says Zeynep Harezi (pictured right), chief commercial officer of Karadeniz's powership arm, called Karpowership. The Onur Sultan is the first of its ships around the world to be converted. 

Harezi says the company, which is based in Istanbul, now owns the world's biggest powership fleet. Its 20 vessels are spread across Asia, Africa and the Middle East and can generate 3.1GW of power, enough to run 17 million homes. In the next two years, it is planning to add another 2GW capacity, which will also cover new markets in Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean.

"Our vision is a world where nobody suffers because of a lack of electricity. We want to make sure everyone has access quickly and at a reasonable cost," says Harezi. "And, as long as supply is available, we are prepared to convert all our ships to run only on natural gas or LNG."

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