Expert Q&A: decarbonising heavy goods vehicles

Decarbonising Heavy Goods Vehicles (HGVs) poses one of road transport's biggest net zero challenges. The Engineer asked experts from across the sector about some of the different technologies on offer

Daimler Truck is exploring both hydrogen an battery technologies
Daimler Truck is exploring both hydrogen an battery technologies - Daimler Truck

Meet the experts:

Philip Fjeld - CEO, CNG Fuels
David Thackray - Marketing Director, Tevva
Andreas Garbach - Head of truck technology, Daimler Truck AG
Ben Nyland - President & CEO, Loop Energy 

The HGV sector is exploring multiple energy technologies for the future. Where does your company fit in?

PF: HGVs account for 18 per cent of road transport emissions in the UK, making it a key piece to the net zero puzzle. At CNG Fuels, we are rolling out a nationwide network of renewable biomethane refuelling stations for HGVs, to allow fleets to dramatically cut emissions today. By converting fleets to renewable biomethane, major brands through to local hauliers are now cutting emissions by over 90 per cent and saving up to 40 per cent on lifetime fuel costs when compared to diesel. 

We currently have 10 stations across the UK, enabling low carbon deliveries all the way from Inverness down to Cornwall. We are also preparing for future technologies, including hydrogen, to ensure that when these technologies become commercially viable, the infrastructure is already in place to cater to the demand. 

DT: Tevva is leading the charge toward zero-emissions freight and urban logistics. We take a dual energy approach – bringing the best of battery technology and the best of hydrogen fuel cell technology to create an initial range of vehicles adaptable to all duty cycles in the medium-duty category. 

The dual energy approach allows vehicles to do all the work of a diesel truck with peace of mind on cost, range and environmental impact. Tevva has a strong ethos of designing trucks that get the job done. Tevva’s third generation vehicles were recently exhibited at IAA Transportation and overall Tevva has accumulated more than 450,000kms of real work in real fleets.

AG: Being one of the world’s largest commercial vehicle manufacturers, Daimler Truck is committed to the Paris Climate Agreement. We aim to offer vehicles which are carbon-neutral in driving operation in our global core markets (EU30, United States, Japan) by 2039. To achieve this ambition, we have set our strategic course and pursue a dual-track strategy with both battery-electric and hydrogen-based drives. We believe that only a combination of these two drive technologies enable us to offer our customers optimal vehicle solutions for their diverse transportation tasks.

BN: Loop Energy is a leading designer and manufacturer of hydrogen fuel cell systems for the electrification of commercial mobility. Vehicles such as transit buses, logistics fleets, delivery trucks and specialty vehicles utilise Loop Energy’s proprietary eFlow technology as a zero-emissions power solution. 

With the mission to be the engine driving zero-emissions, Loop Energy is committed to delivering high-performing and economical solutions for its customers to accelerate the adoption of fuel cell technology. 

Can these different power sources be complementary or will we see winners and losers in the long run?

AG: We are fully convinced they will be complementary. What makes us so sure? Three things: First, depending on the transportation task and regional factors such as energy costs, both battery-electric and hydrogen can be the more profitable solution for our customers. Second, as important as the right vehicles is the right corresponding infrastructure. Electricity from the power grid alone will not be able to cover the huge green energy demands in the future. Third, a global trade with green energy will emerge, since almost every country relies on energy imports – green hydrogen will play a central role here as it is a very efficient way to transport green energy.

BN: We believe that, instead of arguing about which technology is “better,” we would be better served by viewing zero-emission vehicles through the lens of customer needs and providing vehicles with the product solution best suited for those needs.

Transportation accounts for so much of the global emissions profile, and the diversity of applications are so substantial that no single technology will provide the entire solution.

The reality is that transportation accounts for so much of the global emissions profile, and the diversity of applications are so substantial that no single technology will provide the entire solution.  This is part of the reason that both gasoline and diesel are widely distributed fuels.

Through partnering with various OEMs and fleet operators, we are seeing fuel cells used to enhance battery-electric vehicles solutions, especially for HGVs and large commercial vehicles. This is because vehicles using a fuel cell as range extender can achieve greater vehicle range, cargo capacity and faster refueling time, all factors which positively impact the total cost of ownership.

However, as green hydrogen continues to become both economically viable and cost-effective, we strongly believe that hydrogen will play a leading role. Our next-generation technology is a 120kW fuel cell system which lowers the total cost of ownership and brings fuel cost parity forward by four-to-eight years.

As the energy transition continues, hydrogen fuel cell technology is in a prime place as an alternative to diesel-powered vehicles.

DT: In terms of European commercial transportation, Tevva believes that hydrogen and batteries are highly complementary. Alongside our fully electric offering, we use hydrogen via a small fuel cell on our BEVs as a secondary energy source.

Hydrogen has solid potential to be a vital part of the renewable energy mix and we aim to make green hydrogen simple, safe and cost-effective for customers by providing access to green hydrogen at depot via Tevva Energy Services and our extensive partner coverage in UK and EU. Major European governments such as Germany, France and the UK have all committed to hydrogen strategies resulting in significant inward investment. In fact 14th September 2022 hailed a historic European Parliament decision regarding renewables – a commitment to renewable energy contribution of 45 per cent of the total energy mix by 2030, and 50 per cent of industry to transition to green hydrogen by 2030.

Tevva is investing in and partnering with stakeholders from the hydrogen value chain to develop accessible solutions to accelerate hydrogen-electric truck adoption.

PF: Decarbonising transport requires a multi-solution approach, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Electrification, for example, is a great solution for light transport like cars and vans but is not so well suited for heavy transport. Until electrification, or other technologies such as hydrogen, become commercially viable for heavy transport, biomethane will be the core solution to cut emissions from fleets. 

Each solution has its challenges, a significant hurdle to overcome with hydrogen is cost, whilst with electrification it’s the size, weight and energy density of the batteries that makes it a challenging solution for HGVs today. Decarbonisation demands emissions cuts today, not years down the line so we can’t afford to wait for technology to catch up.

The cheapest, most efficient solution will likely dominate the market in the years to come. Renewable biomethane, hydrogen and electric all offer different benefits and could, in the future, offer multiple avenues for decarbonisation. What’s important is that we act now to adopt the fuels that are available to us today, while also preparing for the future when new technologies and solutions come online.

What are some of the biggest engineering challenges in moving HGVs away from fossil fuels?

DT: Charging infrastructure is often cited as a stumbling block to electric truck adoption – but Tevva’s initial range of electric trucks are designed for back-to-base use, charging overnight with cheaper grid electricity, and with on-site hydrogen storage for swift hydrogen refueling. The overall interoperability of various modes of zero-emission transport will be reached only thanks to a strong synergy between public and private sectors.

Both the UK and EU have strong hydrogen roadmaps. Tevva is working closely to partner with stakeholders from the hydrogen value chain and aims to address this challenge, as capacity ramps up across Europe for zero-emissions solutions such as electrification and hydrogen of commercial vehicles.

BN: In terms of the industry as a whole, there needs to be widespread investment in the storage capacity of alternative fuels such as hydrogen, enabling the availability of alternative fuels to increase. Alongside this, there needs to be a greater public and private investment in hydrogen infrastructure including refueling stations.

Whilst there are challenges, governments are increasingly putting policies in place to decarbonise, and putting investment into the infrastructure that enables a world past fossil fuels. This is a really positive sign for companies like Loop Energy, that are focused on providing solutions in the electrification of commercial vehicles

First and foremost we need the right political framework and corresponding infrastructure to make zero-emission transport a reality

AG: We are facing the biggest transformation our industry has ever seen. We have to invest heavily in carbon-neutral drive products while making sure that all transportation tasks that our customers face are covered, as trucks and buses keep the world moving. Therefore, we need other stakeholders to contribute as well. First and foremost we need the right political framework and corresponding infrastructure to make zero-emission transport a reality. We as an OEM can assure you, that the product will not be the bottleneck.

PF: The move away from fossil fuels for HGVs requires new forms of refueling infrastructure. Our renewable biomethane is plugged directly into the national gas grid, making infrastructure far less of a challenge – it’s available at high pressure to allow quick refuelling and doesn’t require us to ferry fuel around the country in tankers. CNG Fuels is also hosting hydrogen trials across our refuelling network to ensure that our infrastructure can pivot to adopt hydrogen if it becomes a commercially viable solution. 

CNG Fuel's Castleford biomethane HGV refuelling station - CNG Fuels

Vehicles will also be a challenge, particularly for electrification. The size and weight of the batteries could limit the number of goods that HGVs can carry. You don’t have the same challenge with biomethane or hydrogen, which operate and are refuelled in a similar way to the diesel HGVs we see today – this has the added benefit of being familiar to drivers and fleets meaning less education and/or alternations to working patterns is required.

Does the fleet model under which many HGVs operate offer an opportunity to decarbonise the sector more rapidly?

BN: We believe the fleet model under which HGVs operate offers an opportunity to decarbonise the sector more widely. We expect to service a truck and bus market size upwards of US $15 billion over the next 2 to 3 years as the industry moves towards greater adoption of hydrogen technology, facilitating greater energy density and range for the electric freight segment.

PF: The existing fleet model gives organisations the opportunity to decarbonise on a mass scale, rather than upgrading vehicles on a case-by-case basis. Equally, it maximises the business case for switching to a diesel alternative through economies of scale, helping to drive down the cost of new technologies. 

AG: Yes, large fleets can allow us to decarbonise long haul trucking faster and therefore help to decarbonise the sector. But no matter if customer fleets are small or large, we need suitable political framework conditions so that carbon-neutral vehicles become economical for the customer. Because as long as diesel vehicles are more economic, customers will also buy diesel. It is therefore essential to establish a framework that allows for battery-electric and hydrogen-based trucks to lower the total cost of ownership and achieve at least cost parity with diesel trucks.

DT: We believe it offers an opportunity to decarbonise the sector more rapidly. Innovation and investment from private and public sectors will be crucial parts of this story.

An average private car burns around 800 litres of fuel per year, an average urban back-to-base freight truck burns around 10,000 litres per year. A large fleet of trucks (100) burns one million litres per year. This consolidated demand position makes freight truck fleets large powerful levers to be pulled in the quest for transport decarbonisation.