Future fuels – The HGV conundrum

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Prior to the recent publication of the Government’s long awaited Transport Decarbonisation Plan my view was that ministers had left the issue of what to do with commercial traffic, particularly long-distance HGVs, on the ‘too difficult to handle’ pile. As a result many in the haulage industry had complained about a lack of direction and policy from central government. Not surprising in a way because currently there doesn’t seem to be a definitive plan for how long-distance haulage firms can be weaned off highly polluting fossil fuels. Yes many of the large operators have been trialling a wide variety of alternative fuels, including super market chains like Asda and Waitrose with trials of gas and other biofuels.

The government’s ‘Greenprint’ as it’s been called makes it clear that the transition to zero emissions is already underway for small commercial vehicles and there was plenty of evidence of that at the recent ITT Hub event at Farnborough. But what’s the plan for heavy goods vehicles? The Government has stated that European truck manufactures have already pledged to end the sale of fossil fuelled HGVs by 2040. But the plan went further with a consultation designed to perhaps bring that date forward for vehicles under 26 tonnes. With Volta Trucks launching a 19 tonne electric HGV at the ITT Hub, it won’t be long before EV technology gets to 26 tonnes and can help for shorter distance journeys, but for longer distance, electric traction seems to be out of the question.

Even if the charging infrastructure were built, current technology would mean that charging times when out on the road would clearly be too long and certainly much longer than drivers’ breaktimes.  Scania has launched a range of EV trucks that can charge in 40 minutes, but they would require a super-fast charger and the range is restricted to 250km. The big question is how much further can EV technology go both in terms of weight and distance? And what about refrigerated lorries? They would use even more of the energy from battery packs, further restricting the range. For many it would seem that EV technology just isn’t up to the job and that hydrogen is probably the best bet for future long-haul HGVs. Indeed, the government’s Transport Decarbonisation Plan mentions that £20 million is being invested to support industry to develop cost-effective, zero emission HGVs and refuelling infrastructure across the UK. And it includes cash for various hydrogen fuel cell trials.

These trials should help to prove the concept of hydrogen powered long distance journeys and they should be both encouraged and applauded. But while hydrogen could be the future solution for long-haul HGVs there are still obstacles in the way, while fuel-cell technology itself is become more mature, there’s still much debate about the production of the hydrogen itself. So called grey hydrogen is the most widely available, but the process uses vast amounts of fossil fuels. Other more environmentally friendly production methods are available, but most have yet to be proven at scale. Another major issue is the cost of the vehicles. Fuel cell technology isn’t cheap. In Switzerland trials of Hyundai HGVs is taking place, but the vehicles have been leased, rather than purchase by the supermarket chain that’s using them.

Going forward large companies may be able to afford the higher price, but smaller firms, many of whom, continued to buy used vehicles, rather than new, certainly won’t. So, despite the government’s new plan and the road ahead becoming clearer, there is still much uncertainty about what the future holds for the humble haulier.

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