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Interview with an Expert

Lynn Stacy, Managing Director for OEC Group’s Liquid Logistics Solutions (LLS) Division, discusses an interesting intersection of the push for sustainability and new technology going on in LLS’s hometown of Houston.

How has the Port of Houston been more effectively leveraging tech solutions?

When volume started picking up dramatically a few years ago, the Port of Houston had to handle more containerized freight than the port had ever processed before. As we all know now, backlogs emerged at every major international gateway, including Houston. To process container ships more efficiently, the Port of Houston employed a system of virtual markers and virtual vessel arrival systems. Incoming vessels could virtually reserve berths as they were making other Gulf Coast stops and better manage the wait time they’d otherwise spend simply idling outside the Port of Houston.

How exactly does that make operations more efficient?

The virtual marker system isn’t extremely complex. When a ship comes into the Gulf Coast leg of its trip, it can virtually check in to the Port of Houston. So, while the vessel is making stops at the Port of Mobile, Port NOLA, or potentially both, it can already have a berthing time or at least a spot in that line of vessels at the Port of Houston. The virtual markers give both the vessel itself and operators at Houston more visibility over where that specific vessel is, when it will arrive at the port, and when exactly that vessel can be processed. This strategy has been proven to drastically decrease idling time.

What environmental impact does this marker system have?

Vessel idling is actually a big contributor to the carbon footprint left by the ocean shipping industry. Since tracking technology used in this way can cut down idling time, it has a direct positive effect on overall emissions. On top of that, having a better idea of when to berth can help ships more efficiently manage speed. Ships won’t be rushing, steaming quickly, and burning unnecessary fuel just to reach a backlogged port. They can better manage that fuel consumption. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has actually studied this virtual vessel marker system in Houston and some other international ports, and their findings proved the effectiveness of this strategy.

How can shippers looking to be more climate conscious take advantage of these new greener solutions?

This particular vessel marker system is interesting because it came out of a need for a higher level of operational efficiency, but it also decreased emissions. Any shipper using the Port of Houston benefits from this. That being said, it’s more difficult to access other green solutions like space onboard LNG vessels or space along shipping rotations that are considered more environmentally conscious. To take advantage of those options, it’s extremely helpful to have strong relationships with a carrier—or a provider like OEC Group—that can advocate for what a shipper values in their shipping plan and access those new services.

Do you have any advice for shippers looking to capitalize on and take part in this industry shift toward sustainability?

The most important thing, particularly in the early stages of this sustainability push, is to partner with a provider that can get you involved with services and programs that have a direct impact. Also, keep in mind that these green solutions do not always sacrifice shipping times or even cost efficiency. Like I said earlier, the virtual marker tool used in Houston actually increased productivity and there were no additional fees associated with it. Additionally, with new IMO goals and regulations, it’s prudent for shippers to get onboard and understand what these solutions mean for their supply chain before some of these methods are potentially mandated.

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