Friday, October 22, 2021

For Fleet and Transport Professionals


An alternatively fuelled future for the HGV industry…as electric is not the only option

By: Paul Holland, Managing Director for UK Fuel at FLEETCOR

There has been a lot of excitement around electric vehicles (EV), with the recent announcement revealing the 2040 cut-off for sales of new internal combustion-engine (ICE) heavy goods vehicles (HGVs), however talk about alternative fuels (AF) in non-ICE larger vehicles is heavily neglected. Though in fact, AF vehicles are a major area of growth in the haulage sector.

Of course, electricity does technically fit into the category of ‘alternative fuels’, AF generally refers to a range of technologies that form an intermediary step between today’s ICE vehicles and full EVs. This middle step is popular as all-electric HGVs do not currently have an equal range to ICE vehicles, compared to alternatively fuelled HGV ranges.

Although petrol and diesel usage dominate the haulage sector, AF is growing while many fleet operators remain reserved to make the switch to EVs just yet. Therefore, it is time to look at the different types of AFs available and the reasons why they are not more widely adopted.

The different AFs on the market
The first and most popular AF available is biodiesel, which is a fuel produced from vegetable oil, animal oils and waste cooking oil – McDonalds has been sending grease to be repurposed as biodiesel for over a decade. The fuel can either be used on its own or can be mixed with diesel, making it a very versatile fuel that does not require many vehicle upgrades. Bentley have already switched their entire fleet to biodiesel, and other companies are likely to follow suit. However, it is unclear as to whether biofuels like biodiesel and bioethanol are in fact more environmental than diesel as the crops that would need to be planted to produce enough fuel to replace the diesel used by the logistics industry would require vast tracts of farmland.

Although not as widely used, natural gas may be more sustainable with a CO2 emission level much lower than biodiesel and with abundant access throughout the world, ensuring a regular supply with a dependable price. In fact, manufacturers such as Iveco, Scania and Volvo have already started adding gas-powered vehicles to their range. Unlike biofuels, to upgrade to natural gas, the vehicle does need to be fitted with large and heavy pressurised tanks. Additionally, as with all AFs – ICE HGVs can refuel at any petrol station forecourt whereas LNG refuelling is relatively uncommon.

The last AF available to HGVs is hydrogen, which is easy to source and can be created through breaking down natural gas (so-called ‘blue hydrogen’) or by electrolysis of water, breaking H20 into hydrogen and oxygen (‘green hydrogen’). The main selling point of hydrogen is that it produces zero emissions when burnt as fuel and potentially none when manufactured – manufacturing green hydrogen only requires electricity, which can come from renewable sources.

Hydrogen can be burned like other fuels and is already used as a fuel in trucks by DAF and Hyundai. However, unlike biodiesel and natural gas, hydrogen-powered HGVs will take longer to refuel – although still much faster than the current EVs on the market.

The challenges in adopting AFs
With that said, why aren’t more fleet operators switching to AFs? First of all, all three of the above AFs require some form of modification of the vehicle, and a lot of the time the amount that this costs is more than it would cost to buy a new vehicle. Most fleet operators do not have the resources to complete this conversion, especially at a time when they are recovering from the economic impact that they have faced over the course of the past two years. Secondly, petrol, diesel and even EV infrastructure is much more readily available than AF infrastructure at presnt. While EV charging stations are growing exponentially, it is rare to find places to fuel up with biodiesel, natural gas and especially hydrogen.

There is no hiding that the transport industry is the UK’s biggest polluter, and while the energy industry has cut its emissions by 62% since 1990, transport has only been able to manage 1% primarily due to the fact that diesel, which produces CO2 and is noxious and potentially cancer causing, is the only viable fuel for HGVs. Although fuels such as hydrogen are viable fuel replacements for HGV vehicles, there is simply not enough infrastructure available, with only thirteen hydrogen refuelling stations in the UK, exemplifying the clear need for government to focus a portion of their budget on the haulage industry’s fuel needs.

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