Monday, July 27, 2020

The Fight is On to Provide the Best Way to Power UK HGVs Cleanly Into the Next Decade

White Paper Paints a Vision of the Future - But Gets Dismissed by Industry Opponents
Shipping News Feature

UK – First it was horsepower versus mechanical technology, then we had external (steam) versus internal (petrol/diesel) combustion, the latter of which first had to win the battle with electrically driven road vehicles. Now, whether you noticed or not, another fight for supremacy is taking place and it is not just a rerun, with gas also now bidding for supremacy.

As the bell goes to start the latest round of this slugging match the language is getting more colourful, and the lists of ‘facts’ more elaborate. Last week the Centre for Sustainable Road Freight (CSRF) published a White Paper, ‘Decarbonising the UK’s Long-Haul Road Freight at Minimum Economic Cost’ and it has upset the gas lobby.

The document takes an unorthodox look at electrifying Britain’s road network, draping overhead cables along some 7,500 kilometres of the country’s major roads, a scheme it estimates would cost circa £19.3 billion. That would mean accessible power covering an area used by 65% of HGV traffic which, when backed up by electrification of all urban delivery vehicles currently powered conventionally meaning, so the CSRF says, the almost total elimination of carbon emissions from the sector.

So who or what is the CSRF? Obviously one imagines a selection of vested interests, feet firmly planted in the grid and battery sectors. However that is not actually so, as the organisation does not have the flavour of industry bias. Rather, as a collaboration between Cambridge and Heriot-Watt Universities, it carries a more intellectual air, and the list of its other supporters is much more geared to those delivering the goods rather than making the vehicles to do so.

The report is a typical university style, well researched and costed piece of analysis of one broad sweep solution to one of the most pressing problems. Accompanied by a complete bibliography the document sets out a way to accomplish exactly what the UK government has promised, and which many have pondered how it could possibly deliver, that is to mandate net-zero greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2050.

It proposes the most cost effective way to actually reach this goal may well be to build what it terms an ‘Electric Road System’ (ERS) as the primary candidate to deliver the energy needed by the UK’s long-distance HGV fleet. The estimated CO2 saving would be 13.4 MtCO2e per annum, along with the obvious substantial air quality benefits, something fresh in peoples’ minds after the drastic emission reductions witnessed countrywide during lockdown.

Our picture shows a Scania HGV operating on a catenary lorry ‘eHighway’ demonstrator in Germany, from Siemens, so this is current technology which could indeed be rolled out during the next decade if work started immediately. Not everyone is as enamoured of the scheme however, as comments from the Gas Vehicle Network (GVN) make plain.

The members of the GVN reads like a who’s who of gas suppliers with a solitary transport industry representative, truck maker IVECO, undoubtedly wisely placing a foot in both camps. The response to the CSRF was unambiguous, with Isaac Occhipinti, GVN Head of External Affairs, saying:

“Why spend millions on an electric road system, when gas as a transport fuel can deliver the carbon and cost savings needed? It makes no sense to embark on a costly and unsightly project like this when gas as a transport fuel is already operating and delivering carbon and costs savings. Clean, low carbon, renewable gas powered vehicles are the obvious, sustainable solution for the freight and transport industry.

”GVN statistics show that in 2019 almost 80% of the total dispensed volume of gas for transport fuel was biomethane, a renewable and sustainable low carbon fuel, a 22% increase from 2018. By switching from diesel to renewable biomethane gas, fleet operators could see savings of up to £29,000 per year, approximately 52%. In addition, with biomethane, net CO2 emissions could be cut by over 84%.

“It is becoming increasingly clear that biomethane as a transport fuel can, and will deliver substantial financial and carbon savings for Fleet managers and Government as they adopt low carbon, renewable gas powered heavy vehicle transport.”

Doubters will however always raise an argument that bio fuels are rarely, if ever, truly environmentally friendly and that the ecological cost of production must be added to the emissions produced to ensure a level playing field, something the GVN would doubtless dismiss. Additionally, those who have travelled widely abroad in places like Thailand will know the cylinders to hold the gas often take up a disproportionate amount of the vehicle bed compared to underslung tanks for liquid diesel.

So the fight is on, some will argue that a diversification of energy sources will act both as a cost control and a safety net if delivery problems of one or other ever rears its ugly head. Others will doubtless argue for economy of scale, placing faith in one all-encompassing answer. Reduction to the cost of producing hydrogen will bring another player onto the pitch, with many seeing a gas made from water as the eventual best long term solution.

Whatever the final result it’s good to see the country gearing up for the drastic measures which will be needed to achieve those zero emission targets that, if managed in time, could produce not only cheaper, cleaner freight transport, but provide another new potential export market for British technology.