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A Tale of Two Ports

As Trade Accelerates, Germany’s Top Port Battles Crowded Shipping Lanes, Air Pollution

The Port of Hamburg, like the Port of Houston, is dealing with the growing pains that come with rapid expansion.



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Port of Hamburg, aerial view
Aerial view of the Port of Hamburg
Imagine that the Port of Houston was located not to the east of the city but at Allen's Landing, where it stood before the construction of the Houston Ship Channel. That's what Hamburg is dealing with right now.

"We have the challenge in Hamburg actually to get all the ships in and out," says Axel Mattern, CEO of the Port of Hamburg Marketing Association. "Because we have this river navigation of 100 kilometers, of about 60 miles, which is of course quite narrow, and the bigger the ships are getting, the more difficult it gets for the Port of Hamburg."

In order to make room for those vessels, Hamburg wants to dredge and reconstruct the River Elbe, in order to make it both deeper and wider. "The main issue is to have this ‘encounter box' in the middle of the river," Mattern says, "that we make sure that the big ships can pass each other, because we have so many ships. We have already 900 ships a year which are bigger than 300 meters."

Farmers and environmentalists argue dredging would damage the Elbe's water quality, threatening agriculture and marine life. They're fighting the effort both in German federal court and at the European Union level.

Traffic on the Elbe isn't the only congestion problem facing Hamburg. There's also the problem of what emissions from all those ships do to Hamburg's air, according to Rainer Horn of Hapag-Lloyd. The firm is the market leader in container shipping between North and South America, with a Houston office that handles all its traffic along the U.S. West and Gulf Coasts.

"If a ship is berthing in the port," Horn says, "you switch off the main engine, but you have to keep auxiliary engines running with diesel fuel. The power of these engines could supply a smaller town with electricity."

Burning diesel generates sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and particulate matter – all components of smog, all linked to respiratory illness. Some vessels are hooking up to LNG power barges as a cleaner alternative to diesel. But Hapag-Lloyd is pioneering another approach. The company has started retrofitting its vessels to plug into shore-based power supplies.

"They are used mainly in California now, where it is passed by law to do it for half of your ships' calls annually," Horn says. Hapag-Lloyd is already using the technology in Hamburg for its cruise liners. It aims to start converting its container fleet next year.

Shore-based power is only as clean as its fuel source. Germany is now four years into a program called the Energiewende, or "energy transition." The policy, proposed by Chancellor Angela Merkel and adopted as federal law, aims to phase out German use of fossil fuels and nuclear power in favor of renewables.

Container terminal and wind turbine at the Port of Hamburg
Sailing along the Elbe, Axel Mattern points out the role Hamburg is playing.

"Hamburg as a city is the head office of most of the renewable energy companies in Europe," Mattern says. "And we have several huge and big windmills already installed in the port in order to obtain new, green energy to serve the port as well."

Germany still derives much of its electric power from coal. That holds true even for Hamburg. If and when the balance shifts, there will be a downside for transatlantic trade. The closer Germany gets to the goal of a low-carbon economy, the less coal it will need from the Port of Houston.

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Andrew Schneider

Andrew Schneider

Politics and Government Reporter

Andrew Schneider is the senior reporter for politics and government at Houston Public Media, NPR's affiliate station in Houston, Texas. In this capacity, he heads the station's coverage of national, state, and local elections. He also reports on major policy issues before the Texas Legislature and county and city governments...

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