Electrification of road haulage will be battery driven and is headed for delivery earlier than expected
- Oct 23, 2020 8:13 am GMT
Public focus on decarbonisation of transport has largely been on electrifying cars, while decarbonisation of the trucks and vans that carry goods is often overlooked. But new products for decarbonising road haulage are on the market and the regulations needed to push sales of these solutions are beginning to catch up with reality
Road vehicles—cars, trucks, buses and anything else hitting tarmac with two or three-wheels—accounts for around three-quarters of the transport sector’s total emissions, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA), a government policy advisor and data collector. To make matters worse, greenhouse gas emissions from the transport sector have grown since 1990 while those from electricity generation have fallen. According to the World Resources Institute, an independent think tank in New York, global transport emissions grew from 4.6 gigatonnes to nearly 7.8 gigatonnes in 2016. While those figures are for all of transport, including aviation, road vehicles contribute 72% of the global transport emissions.
In Europe, freight transport by road accounts for around 22% of road transport’s greenhouse gases but just 2% of all vehicles, according to Transport and Environment (T&E), a European green transport campaign group. Yet uptake of electrified transport for freight is slow and public funding will be needed in the face of increased emission reduction targets, T&E says. In a briefing to the European Commission in September 2020, T&E recommended the introduction of a voucher system for fleet operators to secure discounts on buying new hybrid and electric vehicles (EVs). It also recommended that European Union member states should establish targets within their national post-covid-19 recovery plans to help truck makers ensure 10% of their new lorries are zero-emissions by 2025.
Further, a May 2018 paper from T&E assessed the potential for electrification of long-haul commercial vehicles by 2050. Despite some scepticism, the paper ultimately concludes that electrification of long-haul commercial vehicles is technically feasible, but it will require supportive policies to facilitate the transition.
“Everything you touch, buy or eat in a city centre has been delivered by truck,” says Duncan Forrester of Swedish electric vehicle start-up Volta Trucks. Decarbonisation of delivery demands the replacement of every conventional commercial vehicle operating in our cities with an electrically powered alternative. Indeed, fleet operators are highly motivated to future-proof their operations by making them sustainable.
In September 2020, Volta presented its vision for the future of heavy transport: a 16-tonne Volta Zero electric-battery truck, designed specifically for urban environments. The 160-200 kWh battery has a range of between 150 and 200 kilometres, which would suit many inner-city routes. Primarily designed for parcel and freight distribution, the Volta Zero also hints at a future when commercial vehicle electrification could potentially be extended beyond the city limits, to include medium and long-haul commercial vehicles.
BATTERIES OR WHAT?
An alternative to powering trucks with electric batteries is to install fuel cells that use electrolytic hydrogen, with the electricity supplied by a renewable energy technology. Compared with storing electricity directly in a battery, however, the hydrogen route remains far more expensive because it is a much less efficient use of energy.
German engineering firm Siemens has taken a look at hydrogen fuel cells in commercial vehicles and established their energy efficiency at around 30%, compared with around 70% for fully electric vehicles using batteries. Hydrogen demand may also outstrip supply, even within the transport sector, where shipping and aviation look impossible to electrify using batteries.
The inescapable conclusion, it would appear, is that electrification of road haulage is dependent on batteries, and the bigger and better batteries required are no longer a distant prospect, but nudging up to the edges of a market packed with buyers in the form of vehicle manufacturers keen to get ahead of one another by offering decarbonised delivery solutions. The arrival of US electric car producer Tesla’s “Semi” truck is expected in 2022 with US retailer Walmart already signed up as a customer.
French automotive manufacturer Renault Trucks also announced the sale of its first two fully electric trucks, one to UK bakery chain Warburtons and the other to water and waste company Suez Recycling and Recovery UK. Renault has a comprehensive range of electric trucks under development, ranging from 3.1 to 26 tonnes.
By 2030, it will be illegal to drive a conventional internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicle on the streets in Paris. Many other cities are considering similar measures. Copenhagen, Denmark, is looking at banning cars from the city centre and UK prime minister Boris Johnson has floated the idea of stopping commercial vehicles from entering some of the country’s busiest urban areas. Bristol, in southwest England, has approved plans to prohibit private diesel cars from the city centre between 07:00 and 15:00. Meanwhile bans on the sales of ICE vehicles are being installed across a host of countries and regions, including car-mad California from 2035.
"Another really interesting segment coming up right now is more on the commercial and industrial side: delivery vans, repair vehicles and those vehicles that are conducive to being placed in a large fleet service”
Volta’s Forrester notes the range of some electric trucks is still limited and gaps in charging infrastructure remain. His concerns are echoed by Steve Patton of professional services firm EY Americas. Like Forrester, however, he is also optimistic that improvements are on the way.
“The trend right now is not only electrification of all vehicles but we are probably going to see the pattern take off even more strongly in the commercial trucking [sector],” Patton says. “I think another really interesting segment coming up right now is more on the commercial and industrial side: delivery vans, repair vehicles and those vehicles that are conducive to being placed in a large fleet service.”
For businesses that operate fixed delivery or fixed repair routes, fleet upgrades will involve strong use of electrical vehicles, adds Patton. The US Postal Service is trying out EVs right now, he says, describing it as an enormous contract that will make waves, similar to those created when online retailer Amazon announced its electrification strategy. Amazon plans to have 10,000 electric vans on the road by 2022, having placed an initial order with EV manufacturer Rivian in early 2020. Ultimately, the global retailer is planning for a total fleet of 100,000 electric vehicles by 2030. Such an investment is much easier for a trillion-dollar company like Amazon. Many haulage firms are small or medium-sized enterprises that require support to decarbonise.
Larger urban areas will be the first to move to EV deliveries but Patton believes the pace of replacing all ICE commercial vehicles operating across all towns and cities will differ depending on location, with Europe probably being a little further ahead than the United States at the moment. At the same time, commercial fleet owners will shift to clean alternatives as the long-term total cost of ownership of an EV nears parity with ICE vehicles. The argument will strengthen as vehicle range from a single battery charge increases and as the gaps in charging networks are filled in.
The development of a charging infrastructure system has already received political and financial support. Experts are warning, however, that electric haulage vehicles could need a network of dedicated power supply outlets along their routes. They fear charging only at depots will never be sufficient to provide range enough for long-haul journeys.
Across the most metropolitan areas of the United States, there will need to be approximately 195,000 non-residential electric vehicle charging points by 2025. This requires a 300% increase in the number of charge points these areas had in 2017.
Even so, electric long-haul commercial vehicles are viable, according to current analysis, with a fair chance they will appear on a road near you soon.
For long-distance motorway haulage, Siemens presents overhead power lines as a viable alternative. The catenary system is similar to that used on electric railways. This infrastructure can supply power to the vehicle while driving, both directly to the motor and to charge the battery, through a pantograph connection. The technology is particularly cost-effective on busy transport routes and would allow the size of the battery needed by the vehicle to be reduced, in turn reducing weight, cost and volume.
Catenary systems are already being tested in a number of countries—Sweden as a two kilometre demonstration project near Gävle—while more projects are in the planning phase. In Germany, pilot projects have found that the system can be implemented effectively for up to 100 kilometres.
The UK’s Centre for Sustainable Road Freight—formed by a group of academic institutions—published a plan to install overhead catenary systems on 7,500 kilometres of the UK’s major roads. It would draw on similar experiences from Sweden and Germany. The three-phase plan would cost around €21 billion and cover approximately 65% of all the roads used by heavy goods vehicles in the UK over a decade.
The plan would additionally extend the electricity grid infrastructure, supporting the installation of charging points for smaller electric vehicles at motorway services and other locations across the UK, the authors argued.
TEXT ROBIN WHITLOCK
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