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The future for heavy-duty vehicles in the Pentalateral Region: Integrating electromobility in the energy transition

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Sean Ratka's picture
Associate Programme Officer, International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA)

Currently focused on the roles of blockchain, AI and IoT in the renewable energy transition.

  • Member since 2020
  • 8 items added with 8,064 views
  • Nov 10, 2020

Sean Ratka, Francisco Boshell, Arina Anisie, Dolf Gielen (IRENA)

Road freight transport accounted for 27% of all transport-related emissions or over 6% of global energy-related emissions in 2017. Despite representing only 9% of the global vehicle stock, freight trucks accounted for around 39% of the life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions from road vehicles in 2017, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA)’s latest report, Reaching Zero with Renewables. Within road freight, heavy trucks (over 15 t) dominate activity and CO2 emissions.

There are three principal options consistent with the goal of zero CO2 emissions from road freight transport:

  1. Battery electric vehicles
  2. Fuel cell electric vehicles
  3. Biofuels

None of these options are yet in widespread use, but all have been trialled and the issues preventing scaleup are mainly economic and logistical rather than technological. At this nascent stage of development, road freight transport companies are hesitant to invest in a specific technology until they are confident that it will emerge as the clear winner, supported by robust infrastructure build-out. Despite the uncertainty, electric trucks are gaining traction due to their attractive ‘total cost of ownership’ over their lifetime, driven by higher performance trends than other options.

Figure 1. Performance of different types of alternative fuel heavy-duty trucks

When compared to hydrogen fuel cell trucks, battery e-trucks are twice as efficient. Besides the economic implications to the end user when it comes to purchasing fuel, this also reduces pressure on renewable electricity supply needed to produce green hydrogen (to power hydrogen fuel cell trucks) due to the increased efficiencies of direct electrification.

Focusing on battery electric vehicles in specific, IRENA, together with the Department of Energy of the Government of Luxembourg, the Benelux Secretariat, the European Federation for Transport & Environment, and ChargePoint organised a webinar entitled “The future for heavy-duty vehicles in the Pentalateral Region: Integrating electromobility in the energy transition” to help identify and address the barriers to adoption. The event gathered attendees from 80 countries, featured 19 speakers spread over four topical sessions (Slides and recordings can be found here).

Electrification of road freight includes diverse challenges as the sector itself is diverse. Commercial light-duty vehicles (LDV), for example, include delivery vans and small trucks for residential package delivery. The business model for this segment is based on volume of cargo, where the weight of batteries is not an issue and electric-vehicles are the current emerging alternative. Commercial heavy-duty vehicles (HDV), on the other hand, include long-haul heavy-duty trucks, where truck weight is an issue and batteries with higher energy-densities will be needed and where the race between electric, hydrogen fuel-cell and biofuels is not yet decided.

Key insights shared during the event were varied, but pathways forward to increase the sustainability for road freight transport fit within three general categories: technology, infrastructure, and international collaboration & policy.


Volvo and DHL both noted that through the process of normal operations, they accumulate substantial amounts of data on where, when and how their trucks drive and charge. This data is valuable in that it can define the best locations to expand and build new charging infrastructure. Sharing data between OEMs can help paint a fuller picture on what type of charging infrastructure is needed where, thereby enabling more E-trucks on the road, sooner. Speakers noted that data sharing has already been solved at the technical level and is more a matter of cooperation between stakeholders.

The convergence of mobility and energy is underpinned by data. Digitalisation is a critical enabler of the electrification of freight, not just hardware but also software. When moving away from a robust and known fuel source (diesel), drivers need reliable and timely information regarding charging. Drivers need to know where and when charging is possible during longer routes, how to book a slot, the cost of charging (which can vary widely) and the speed of charging available.

Another important role of technology is the training of drivers in order to shorten learning curves. DHL has initiated a training programme for drivers to learn how to properly drive E-trucks in order to maximise the efficiency and lifespan of this new fleet of assets while reducing maintenance costs and increasing service time. DHL’s employee training led to 70% increase in vehicle range (100 to 170km) and helped to decrease range anxiety of drivers by sharing experiences virtually as well as in the classroom and appointing ambassadors to train new staff.


In terms of depot charging, which will represent the main method of charging e-trucks, Entso-e emphasised the need for long-term planning and learning from current best practices. A truly holistic approach focused on sector coupling should be planned: charging depots for e-trucks should consider local power grid constraints, renewables availability, and traffic routs, in order to maximise convenience while also relieving traffic congestion. The overall process of building the necessary freight charging infrastructure can be optimised and accelerated by incorporating learnings from e-bus depots, which already have years of experience in this field.

There is a clear movement towards chargers with higher capacities, and public charging sites need to be located not only where useful for grids (close to high-voltage lines to enable rapid charging at low cost), but also for truck drivers (close to highways or just outside city limits for delivery vehicles). Infrastructure planning and development should begin by studying data from trucking manufacturers and operators in order to determine trucking hotspots. It is essential that these large charging sites rely on renewable electricity.

The long time needed for permitting, planning and construction of public charging infrastructure is an issue that was raised by several speakers. Grid reinforcements will be needed in many cases. This requires time. Grid companies and operators must be proactive and think ahead, considering the number of electric trucks which will be on the road in future and the infrastructure required (including substations and other infrastructure). DSO’s are capable of realising the needed infrastructure but need to be involved in the planning from the start.

Smart charging

Speakers highlighted the need for a “smart charging” approach for e-trucks to limit the grid reinforcements needed over the course of this transition due to the vast amounts of power needed to charge heavy trucks (1-3 MW charging points to come). The peak load of a European household is around 0.7 kW (evening peak). Using a 1MW charging point, an e-HDV would represent the peak load of around 1,500 households. Depending on the simultaneity of charging several e-HDVs at a time (in depots or rest areas, for example), it could cause major stress for the local grid resulting in significant infrastructure reinforcement investment needs.

Despite the fact that the number of service hours of trucks is much higher than for passenger vehicles and flexible charging opportunities may be more limited due to shorter charging time windows outside of operation, smart charging may still have an important role to play in road freight transport.  Several considerations for smart charging of e-trucks emerged throughout the discussion, including the need to better understand and adapt charging patterns. Possible solutions may rely less on price signals (tariffs) and more on infrastructure solutions (digital & electrical).

When combined with on-site batteries and renewable energy generation, charging hubs become even more flexible by better managing peak loads. We see today already a few examples of this, including Frito Lay in California, which is experimenting with a combination of e-trucks, on-site solar PV generation, and stationary batteries in order to more effectively decarbonise their logistics chain. In France, independent energy producer Kallista Energy is investing in a network of ultra-fast charging stations powered directly from renewable energy sources including wind, along and around France’s motorways and other major roads. The network will be capable of charging at levels up to 350 kW with the first stations coming into service from 2024. Forward thinking on infrastructure will be essential, as proper long-term planning involving charging point owners, utility and energy authorities, as infrastructure work may take up to three years to be implemented.

International collaboration & policy

Sandor Gaastra, Director-General of Climate & Energy at the Ministry of Economic Affairs Dutch Penta Presidency, noted the outsized role of trucking within the greater energy sector decarbonisation by mid-century. He highlighted the importance of not only regional and EU-wide cooperation on trucking, but also between the electricity and transport sectors, in order to reach the important milestones laid out in the Green Deal and subsequent EU Climate Law. Speakers from California also highlighted the important role of cooperation, and how lessons learned from California’s experience could be implemented in Europe and vice versa. By 2035, 75% of new small trucks, 55% of medium-sized trucks, and 40% of heavy trucks sold must be zero emissions in the state of California. These are strong signals, but action is needed now on the technology and infrastructure side to ensure these targets are effectively met.

Leading regions, including the EU and California, should adopt complementary enabling frameworks, aligned regulations, incentives and investments in order to increase economies of scale and accelerate the development and adoption of E-trucks. Importantly, cooperation is essential at the policymaking level.

A guideline for cooperation mentioned included:

  • Standards need to be universal (between regions, countries, and states);
  • Policies being developed need to be compatible with the technologies being developed (cooperation between sectors);
  • Targets are very useful for long-term planning and should be aligned regionally (or between leaders such as EU and California).

A few examples of potentially effective policy raised by speakers included:

  • New zero-emissions truck sales requirements (specific targets tailored to specific categories of truck, based on size and weight);
  • Incentives for upfront costs;
  • Fleet purchase requirements;
  • Infrastructure investments to match vehicle incentives;
  • Establishment of zero-emission zones for delivery vehicles;
  • Reduced road tolls for E-trucks;
  • Increased road weight limits for e-trucks to account for battery weight (2 t extra is currently being discussed at the EU level).

Moving forward

This event, organised by IRENA and its partners, concluded with a proposal to create a Pentalateral standing working group on energy and mobility to address the barriers and solutions discussed above.

In order to effectively electrify road freight transport (using renewable electricity), development of e-trucks should happen in waves, starting small, where the business cases already exist. As a first case, transit busses make the most sense due to their regular routes and shorter distances travelled. Next, delivery vehicles can be electrified before moving on to medium freight. As the infrastructure is built and the technical knowhow increases, investment can be leveraged from previous waves of electrification to transition heavy regional freight and lastly corridor long-haul trucking. Unlike passenger EVs, where consumer/driver sentiment plays an important role, the electrification of road freight transport is strictly business. Therefore, the sector’s development, driven by policy, can be planned as effectively and efficiently as possible, based on economics and technology.

In general, there are a few keys to speeding up progress. For policymakers and other stakeholders:

  • Show ambition and work with other stakeholders, including truck manufacturers, logistics operators, grid operators, and charging depot operators;
  • Provide long-term goals and roadmaps while looking at which policy measures (from leading countries and states around the world) can be effective in overcoming specific hurdles locally;
  • Develop common standards on a regional level (since trucks cross borders);
  • Collaborate on main freight corridors and make use of data already being collected and analysed by companies such as Volvo, DHL, DPD, and others;   
  • Support experiments to accelerate market introduction.

Please join us for future IRENA events by visiting our events page.


Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Nov 10, 2020

A few examples of potentially effective policy raised by speakers included:

New zero-emissions truck sales requirements (specific targets tailored to specific categories of truck, based on size and weight);

Incentives for upfront costs;

Fleet purchase requirements;

Infrastructure investments to match vehicle incentives;

Establishment of zero-emission zones for delivery vehicles;

Reduced road tolls for E-trucks;

Increased road weight limits for e-trucks to account for battery weight (2 t extra is currently being discussed at the EU level).

These are interesting ideas, and certainly the end result wouldn't be one as a silver bullet but a pragmatic combination of them. Are any of these particularly more or less politically feasible to pursue out of the gate, Sean? 

Sean Ratka's picture
Sean Ratka on Nov 11, 2020

Hi Matt, there are certainly differences based on jurisdiction (and the political appetite to push zero-emissions transport forward) but concerning vehicles, in Europe what has been effective is the EU regulation on CO2 emissions standards for vehicles. That really triggered car manufacturers to quickly come with new products (e-vehicles). I think we’re seeing a similar path being taken in CA.

Charging infrastructure on the other hand is more of an issue. An ongoing discussion is to have a compensation scheme for charging points that might be underutilised, basically using public money to enhance the business case for charging point owners. As mentioned in the post, infrastructure is clearly lacking and we need long-term planning to power the millions of EVs which will shortly be on the road.

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