SCALA’s Rob Wright evaluates the most viable fleet option for businesses seeking to reduce their carbon footprint

The transport sector accounts for 27% of UK carbon emissions, with road freight accounting for 7% of this. The government have committed to zero emissions for all heavy goods vehicles 26 tonnes and under by 2035 and all HGVs sold to be zero emission by 2040.

Fleet providers and operators are now assessing whether switching to alternative, greener fuels would be a viable and appropriate option for their vehicles. For cars, lighter vans, buses and in some cases HGVs on shorter journeys such as local authority vehicles, electric appears to be the way forward.  However, for most HGVs, electric presents more of a challenge due to the vehicle weights and distances. In the short to medium term, as a result, operators are turning to alternative fuels such as Hydrotreated Vegetable Oil (HVO), Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG), Bio LNG, Synthetic Diesel to reduce their carbon emissions.

Long term however there are only two realistic options to achieve the government targets for HGV: electric or hydrogen powered vehicles. Some businesses are already starting to transition in part to electric vehicles (EVs), with research predicting that by 2025, 30% of all vehicle sales will be hybrid or electric. However, there are some definite barriers to both electric or hydrogen vehicles becoming a viable option across the globe.

Electric vehicles

At SCALA’s last supply chain debate, David Cebon, Director of the Centre for Sustainable Road Freight, and Professor of mechanical engineering at Cambridge University, detailed how the only way electric HGVs could be a feasible option, would be through developing an Electric Road System (ERS). 

An ERS, referring to an electric motorway whereby trucks could charge via overhead cables as they travel, would cost £20bn in tax-payer investment. However, there are some significant benefits. Firstly, it would reduce both the battery size necessary for EVs and the scale of the charging infrastructure required, both of which are current limitations on its reliability.

Also, despite the infrastructure needed ERSs produce less noise than traditional motorways, reducing the noise pollution created by HGVs. There are also efficiency benefits as EVs are much more efficient than combustion engines. This means less energy is wasted and more goods can be transported with fewer emissions.

The energy necessary to power an ERS is also favourable in comparison to hydrogen. To power the UK HGV industry an ERS network would require 10.6 gigawatts of electricity, equivalent to 3,500 wind turbines. In comparison, hydrogen vehicles need 35.6 GW, equivalent to 12,000 wind turbines. Considering this, electric does seem to be the preferable option for most businesses at present.

Hydrogen vehicles

Some do however champion hydrogen as an alternative to traditional fossil fuel sources. The main benefit of green hydrogen as with electric is the reduction of emissions and pollutants it allows as it does not produce any CO2 when used as fuel. Additionally, it has a higher energy density than other renewable fuels including wind or solar. This means more energy can be produced with less resources.

Despite this, green hydrogen does not appear to be a practical option for fleets at present due to its high cost and energy intensive production process. Hydrogen gas must be produced by extracting it from water, which we have seen, requires large amounts of electricity. It is also expensive due to the costly renewables needed to power the electrolysis process.

Additionally, the infrastructure needed to safely transport, and store green hydrogen is not yet widely available, creating additional logistical and financial challenges for fleet providers looking to use it as a fuel source. Therefore, unless there is significant investment either from the industry itself or the government, it’s unlikely to become a possibility in the near future.

Final thoughts

The transport industry has made good progress over recent years in reducing its carbon footprint, however the challenge of reaching net zero requires a massive step change. There are certainly many issues to address, however the key facts point to an ERS and electric HGVs as being by far the most efficient and feasible way forward for fleet providers. This is due to their cost-effectiveness and infrastructure development levels. By considering the switch to electric, fleets can see a significant reduction in their carbon emissions without sacrificing cost-efficiency and or reliability.

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