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

A towboat pushing barges exits the Melvin Price Locks and Dam near Alton, Ill
Jonathan Ahl
Harvest Public Media
A towboat pushing barges exits the Melvin Price Locks and Dam near Alton, Ill

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 more 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, Illinois, about 25 miles north of St. Louis.

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, 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.”Listen to the radio story on barges

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 with 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 via 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 doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good for the environment. 

“The Mississippi River is a river in name only,” said Olivia 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 that the U.S. would shut down barge traffic altogether, especially with the industry suggesting it’s a green option. 

Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @JonathanAhl
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Jonathan Ahl
Jonathan Ahl reports from Missouri for Harvest Public Media. He also is the Rolla Reporter for St. Louis Public Radio. Before coming to St. Louis Public Radio in November of 2018, Jonathan was the General Manager for Tri States Public Radio in Macomb, Illinois. He previously was the News Director at Iowa Public Radio and before that at WCBU in Peoria, Illinois. Jonathan has also held reporting positions in central Illinois for public radio stations. Jonathan is originally from the Chicago area. He has a B.A. in Music Theory and Composition from Western Illinois University and an M.A. in Public Affairs Reporting from the University of Illinois at Springfield. He is an avid long distance runner, semi-professional saxophonist and die-hard Chicago Cubs fan.