For hundreds of years, global trade was made possible by the wind, and masted ships sailed the seas.

Today, the shipping industry is looking to harness the wind once again.

Gavin Allwright is with the International Windship Association, a nonprofit trade group.

“When we first started back in 2014 … I was the strange guy in the room, you know, talking about wind,” he says. “The perception was, why should we even consider this?”

But that attitude is changing as the industry tries to reduce carbon emissions and improve the efficiency of conventional cargo ships and tankers.

Modern wind technologies include tall, cylindrical rotors, and rigid sails that resemble upright airplane wings. They don’t look like the sails of the past, but they apply the same concept: using wind to create thrust, which helps propel the ship.

A handful of large shipping companies have already retrofitted a few vessels with wind technology. Allwright says the changes can reduce fuel use by 5 to 20%. For a big ship, that adds up to significant cost savings over time.

“Wind energy is delivered for free for the rest of the lifetime of that vessel,” he says.

And it could help propel global shipping to a cleaner future.

Reporting credit: Sarah Kennedy/ChavoBart Digital Media and Diana Madson