Fuel duel in the race to power green trucks

Land Transport

Source: Politico, 2021-10-08

Millions of trucks rumbling across the Continent keep supermarket shelves stocked, factories humming with just-in-time deliveries of parts and online purchases showing up on doorsteps — but something's going to have to change.

Trucks and buses account for about a quarter of the EU's CO2 emissions from road transport and some 6% of the bloc's total emissions. To hit its goal of achieving climate neutrality by 2050, the EU needs transport emissions to fall by 90% compared to 1990 levels. 

Truckmakers are already developing green vehicles in a bid to meet EU requirements: The bloc's CO2 standards for trucks mandate a 15% cut in emissions by 2025 and 30% by 2030.

That means at least 270,000 battery-electric trucks and 60,000 fuel-cell trucks will have to be on EU roads by the end of the decade, according to Thomas Fabian, Commercial Vehicles Director for automobile manufacturing lobby ACEA — and that's "pre-Green Deal," he said. The standards could increase when the legislation is up for a revision in 2022.

While there's no argument that the current system has to undergo a revolution, what's less clear is how.

“There aren’t many people yet who would dare to cross Europe with an electric truck,” said Rob Aarse, Sustainability Policy Adviser at Dutch road transport industry group TLN. 

There are two technologies vying for leadership in zero-emission trucks — batteries and hydrogen. Both have pluses and minuses and both rely on a radical reshaping of the Continent's transport market.

Battery-powered trucks face the same problem as their smaller car cousins — range anxiety — plus an additional concern that the existing charging infrastructure meant for cars isn't powerful enough for the much larger batteries carried by trucks. 

“I can’t stress this enough: No transport operator will ever buy a battery-electric truck unless they can charge it somewhere,” said Fabian.

Current trucks being produced by the likes of Scania, Volvo and DAF have ranges from 250 kilometres to 300 kilometres per charge, which is enough for most truck movements.

In July, the Commission proposed strengthening EU rules on alternative fuels infrastructure by setting binding targets for countries to build public truck charging “pools” at 60-kilometre or 100-kilometre intervals along the bloc’s major roads network — an approach the Slovenian presidency of the Council watered down in a first compromise proposal. Hydrogen refueling stations would have to be built every 150 kilometres.

But while the Commission mandated a power output of 350 kilowatts, quickly charging a truck requires a power output up to 750 kW, said Fabian. Brussels should also require countries to build more hydrogen refueling stations, he argued, as hydrogen-fueled trucks have an "edge" over battery-powered vehicles in some applications and can help to decarbonize the sector more quickly.

Hydrogen fills up much faster. Hyundai's new Xcient Fuel Cell heavy-duty truck — now being tested in Europe — fills up in about 10 minutes for a range of 400 kilometres. But there are very few stations. Like with batteries that need higher voltages for trucks, fuel-cell trucks cannot use refueling infrastructure for cars.

For hydrogen to have an impact on emissions, a whole new production chain has to be established making hydrogen from renewable electricity instead of the current highly polluting method of steam reforming natural gas. 

ACEA calls for 10,000 to 15,000 higher‐power public and destination charging points no later than 2025, and 40,000 to 50,000 charging points no later than 2030, as well as 300 hydrogen refueling stations for trucks by 2025 and at least 1,000 by 2030.

Fedor Unterlohner, Clean Freight Policy Officer at NGO Transport & Environment, said the Commission's hydrogen refilling station targets will outpace the number of fuel-cell trucks he expects on the road; battery-electric trucks will dominate, he said.

He argued that concerns about batteries' limitations — such as their price and weight — are unfounded. Their price will drop when batteries are produced at greater scale; with more innovation, they'll also become lighter and won't swallow up the cash-earning payload.

Charging won't be much of a problem either, according to Unterlohner. EU rules mandate that truckers take a 45-minute break every four-and-a-half hours — the "ideal time window" for a high-power truck charge, he said. “You don’t actually need these trucks running 1,600 kilometres without a stop.”

When it comes to greening the fleet, “the question is not if it will happen, but how fast,” Unterlohner said. Companies making green trucks insist the transformation can be done, but say they can't do it alone. Beyond investment in charging infrastructure, putting zero-emission trucks on EU roads will also depend on operators shelling out to buy them. 

A conventional truck is cheaper than a green one — and that's not likely to change anytime soon.

A diesel truck costs €100,000 on average, while battery-electric and fuel-cell trucks cost around €300,000, according to road transport organisation IRU.

That's why the EU needs a policy framework that puts a price on polluting trucks, NGOs and truckmakers say.

“No zero-emission technology will ever have a chance in a market where carbon doesn’t have a price,” Fabian argued.

The Commission’s July climate package included proposals to raise fuel taxes and apply emissions trading to road transport, while a reform of road charging rules currently making its way through the EU institutions would tie charges to vehicles’ CO2 emissions. Although the up-front price is higher, green truck owners could gain on lower taxes, road charges and potentially refueling.

But the trade-off of long-term gains versus short-term up-front costs isn't easy for the small and medium-sized companies that dominate in the sector. 

“The big question is whether this is anything more than a tax measure,” said Aarse. Sustainable alternatives have to be available and “if that’s not certain, then it’s reprehensible … to raise prices.”

It will be crucial that governments offer support to operators, "precisely at the start of this transition, when all of this is unclear and all you know is: This thing costs three or four times more than we’re used to," he said.

 


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