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Barge Industry May Be A Mixed Bag For The Green Energy Movement

Birds rest near the banks of the Mississippi River as a towboat pushing barges makes it way past the locks and dam in Alton, Ill. It's unclear what role barge transportation will play in a green energy movement.
Jonathan Ahl
St. Louis Public Radio
Birds rest near the banks of the Mississippi River as a towboat pushing barges makes its way past the locks and dam in Alton. It's unclear what role barge transportation will play in a green energy movement.

The Biden administration is fighting climate change in part by pushing for cars and trucks to be more fuel efficient and reduce emissions, but so far, that talk hasn’t landed in another mode of transportation: barges.

In light of increased pressure to advance the cause of green energy, the future of the barge industry is unclear, and it could have a major impact on Midwestern rivers.

More than 100 million tons of cargo, including 65% of the corn exported from the U.S., travels via barge on the Mississippi River system each year. A lot of that comes through the Melvin Price Locks and Dam in Alton.

The number of towboats, sometimes pushing more than a dozen floating containers, is consistent. Not even recent low crop prices and the pandemic slowed the traffic.

“I think that will continue,” said Andy Schrimpf, a project manager for the Army Corps of Engineers. “While I’d like to think it would be a significant uptick, I don’t want to be that optimistic. But I do believe there is reason to believe the traffic will sustain, if not pick up.”

One of the bright spots for the barge industry could come from a growing focus on green energy and combating climate change.

“Barges are a great environmental option,” Schrimpf said. “I’m talking about the carbon footprint, the carbon output., and the amount of commodities that are moved per gallon of fuel burned.”

A study by Texas A&M University shows barges can move a ton of cargo 647 miles on a single gallon of fuel. That’s almost 200 miles more than a train and 500 more than a truck.

But environmentalists are pushing back on those assertions.

“The numbers on fuel efficiency are from studies paid for by the barge industry,” said Olivia Dorothy, the Upper Mississippi River Basin director for American Rivers, an advocacy group. “And we don’t have good independent figures on what the actual emissions are between trains and barges, so it’s not a proven fact that barges are the best option.”

But the barge industry sticks by its numbers and hopes to further reduce its carbon footprint, just like the auto industry has with hybrid and electric engines.

ABB, a Swiss company whose product lines include marine power systems, has done preliminary design and concept work and published a white paper on an electric towboat engine.

While it is an example of the kind of technology that could come to market, it will take time.

“Just look at what’s going on, on the roads. What’s going on in trucks and cars. That will transition to us. But we’re always the last. It goes trucks, cars, rails, then marine typically picks it up,” said Dave Lee, senior account manager with ABB Marine and Ports.

“I can show with one towboat that I can remove 150 cars' worth of carbon dioxide off the road a year by going to this technology,” Lee said. “That really begins to speak big.”

Lee said any shift to more energy-efficient towboat engines will take some kind of external pressure, either from government mandates or incentives.

The industry sees that as an opportunity to look for government-funded research and incentives to bring new technology to market.

“There’s great technology out there, but really understanding what needs to happen in order to make that work in the marine environment is going to take a little work,” said Jennifer Carpenter, president and CEO of the American Waterways Operators, a trade group representing tugboat, towboat and barge companies. “There are a lot of smart people working on it, and some additional dollars will only accelerate that.”

Even though something is fuel efficient, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good for the environment.

“The Mississippi River is a river in name only,” said Dorothy of American Rivers.

Conservationists often point to the locks and dam systems and focus on maintaining a channel suitable for barge traffic for eliminating the river’s natural flow and causing a decline in native plants, birds and fish.

“We have seen declines and increases in river traffic, and yet there is still a steady decrease in habitat, a steady loss of biodiversity, because it’s really based on that infrastructure,” she said.

Dorothy said even the cleanest-running towboats and barges will continue to hurt rivers, but she also conceded that it’s highly unlikely the U.S. would shut down barge traffic altogether, especially with the industry suggesting it’s a green option.

Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @JonathanAhl

Jonathan Ahl is the Newscast Editor and Rolla correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.