As the Port of Savannah continues to grow, it has also made some changes to go greener. Several key operations have switched from diesel power to electric. But environmental groups say there is more the port could be doing.
The Port of Savannah is a sprawling piece of land upriver from the city, moving a constant churn of cargo among ships, trucks, trains, and tall stacks of containers. It’s the largest container terminal of it's kind in North America, and the fourth-busiest port in the country.
On a recent afternoon, the sky overhead was clear. It didn't used to be.
“When I first got here 17 years ago, there was basically a dark diesel cloud hovering over this container terminal” said Georgia Ports Authority Spokesman Robert Morris.
He said that was before the port switched a lot of its diesel-powered equipment to electric. The electric cranes that take containers on and off ships generate some of their own power, too.
Every time they lower a container, “that gravitational pull of the container being lowered creates a force that is captured by each of these cranes,” Morris said.
According to the GPA, all of this saves some 6.8 million gallons of diesel fuel a year. But does it make a dent in greenhouse gas emissions?
That question is tough to answer because in the last decade of rapid growth in traffic in the port, no one has compiled a record of how much diesel exhaust the port has been putting into the air. Those reports are called emissions inventories.
Michael Chang of Georgia Tech worked on the last emissions inventory, comparing 2002 and 2010. He found that as port activity increased, emissions did too, even as port activity got more energy efficient.
“Anything that they're doing to try to lower their emissions is always going to be contradicted or pushed back the other way by increased activity,” Chang said. “So their emissions overall were rising, but the amount of the emissions per container move were dropping significantly.”
Right now there are no plans to do an up-to-date inventory.
Other major ports, like Los Angeles-Long Beach and New York-New Jersey, are required to. They’re in areas that don’t meet federal air quality standards. The Savannah area does meet those standards.
Robert Morris said the Port of Savannah is doing fine reducing emissions on its own.
“We can gauge, you know, emission reductions by gauging the millions of gallons of diesel that is no longer being used on our terminals,” he said.
But some say just having faith in the port’s good intentions is not enough. The group Friends of the Earth has called on the GPA to set hard-and-fast emission reduction goals and have ships plug in to electric power at the dock, rather than burning marine diesel.
Morris of the Ports Authority said the Port of Savannah is so efficient, that switch wouldn’t be worth it. The ships aren’t there long enough, he said.
“The amount of fuel that is expended by having to start that engine back up is, is not, it is more — requires more emission more emission release than powering the vessel up via electric on shore power,” Morris said.
“I think it's demonstrably not true,” said John Kaltenstein of Friends of the Earth. He said every bit helps. “And I think you could get a tremendous amount of emission reductions by plugging in, even if it's just, you know, nine hours.”
Kaltenstein said the need to track and significantly cut emissions transcends government regulation.
“You know, it really comes down to an obligation to do this. A moral obligation, an ethical one to be a responsible steward,” said Kaltenstein.
Today, the Georgia Ports Authority does not plan to switch to shore power, or do an emissions inventory, or set concrete emissions reduction targets. Because they’re not required to by law.
About this project
InsideClimate News convened a group of Southeast journalists in Nashville, Tennessee, in late September, at the First Amendment Center on the Vanderbilt University campus, to develop a joint reporting project centered on holding their communities accountable for responding to climate change. “Caught Off Guard: The American Southeast Struggles With Climate Change” features reports from nine newsrooms in seven Southeastern states and ICN.