Electrification can help lower carbon emissions from road freight, but the infrastructure must be in place
Electric vehicles are an important part of meeting global decarbonisation goals. This is especially important in road freight transportation, which accounts for 2.9 gigatonnes a year of tailpipe CO2 emissions.
Hence, electrification of this sector is increasingly considered to be a viable option to tackle climate change that will benefit from the innovations taking place in electric passenger vehicle transport.
Against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, estimates by the International Energy Agency (IEA) is for global electric car sales to slightly exceed 2019’s total to reach more than 2.3 million and achieve a record share of the overall car market of more than 3 percent. Some countries are already pulling ahead: Norway, for instance, saw 62 percent of new car sales go electric in September 2020.
Battery Innovation Drives Electrification
The main drivers of this transition are the constant innovations being made in the realm of electric powertrains. While development is made in motor efficiency and size, the real progress is being made in battery technology.
Lithium-ion is the backbone of modern battery technology. It is energy-dense, can deliver a steady current, and can be recharged quickly. However, Li-ion batteries degrade over time. The electrochemical processes that power the battery become less and less efficient the more it is recharged. For EVs, this is one of the main issues holding back consumer adoption of EVs.
But in the last 10 years, the cost of battery packs has declined by 95 percent to US$122/kWh and this trend will continue. Today’s best-performing battery-powered electric cars can drive 650 kilometres on a single charge under testing conditions, with the battery accounting for 27 percent of the car’s weight. The battery lifespan currently used in electric cars is rated at around 250,000 kilometres or eight years, but battery makers like CATL are ready to produce a battery that lasts 16 years and 2 million kilometres.
For trucks, the payload is a critical component and regulations limit the total vehicle weight. Today’s diesel trucks’ kerb weight is about a third of a vehicle’s maximum loaded weight. A few years ago, the idea of an electric truck seemed far-fetched but this is changing owing to these battery innovations.
Thus, local delivery trucks are the primary targets for electrification. Electrification of last mile delivery trucks is expected to advance more rapidly with companies like UPS and Ikea already electrifying a portion of their fleets, while many European cities are already planning to prohibit fossil-fuel-powered vehicles from entering city centres.
Most electric trucks can be found in China, a leader in segments such as electric garbage collection trucks and electric buses. Chinese manufacturer BYD will soon replace 15,000 internal combustion engine trucks used in Shenzhen with electric versions. This follows the introduction of 60,000 electric light-trucks and vans over the past three years. Approximately 35 percent of Shenzhen’s total fleet of urban delivery vehicles is already electric.
Not Only Cheaper Batteries Needed
The electrification of road freight has great potential, but there are some big gaps that first have to be bridged.
Today’s battery-powered trucks on sale typically have a 150-kilometre to 200-kilometre range. However, 50 to 60 percent of freight is transported for slightly less than 500 kilometres. In order to expedite the electrification transition, a combination of innovations is needed involving battery manufacturing, clean electricity supply, smart and fast charging, charge point availability and high-performance batteries, all supported by the right policy frameworks and market incentives.
For example, new charging infrastructure is required. Today, 75 to 80 percent of all charging operations take place at home or at the office. A lot of effort will be needed to complement this with a public charging infrastructure. Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, France and Germany has 123,000 public charging stations and the ratio of cars to charging stations is around 8:1. If this ratio is to be maintained with the increasing EV sales, around a million more public charging stations will be needed.
In addition, 22-50 kW charging dominates for public stations but the trend is clearly toward fast charging (50-150 kW) or even ultra-fast charging (>150 kW). Its clear many decision makers foresee a similar system to today’s petrol charging stations as the way ahead, while charging point operators (CPOs) are looking for new business models to make the economic case for slow-charging in public urban locations, such as shopping malls or public parking lots.
Another aspect to consider is the peak load on local electricity grids. With a fleet of around 6.5 million trucks on European roads today, if 30 percent were electric they would consume around 125 TWh per year, which is around 4.5 percent of total electricity generated in Europe. Such an increase in additional renewable generation, around 50 to 75 GW of wind and solar capacity, seems feasible, but it would still be a major stress for the local grid resulting in significant infrastructure reinforcement investment. If the power grid stress is offset using fossil fuel power generation, the benefits of EVs will be cancelled out.
Is Electric the Real Answer?
Battery-electric power is just one of the entrants in the race to decarbonise the road freight sector. Other technology like hydrogen and biofuels are also contenders.
Fuel cell electric vehicles powered by hydrogen are an emerging option for heavy-duty road transport, as they may allow for longer ranges than battery electric vehicles. Existing fuel cell electric long-haul trucks have a range of 1100 kilometres, compared to the 400-800 kilometre range of their battery electric counterparts. A limited number of heavy-duty fuel cell electric vehicle fleets are already in operation. Biofuels are already used commercially in some markets; however, their limited production and relatively high cost remain barriers, and feedstock availability is a potential limitation.
Nevertheless, with the pace of innovation in the electric truck sector, coupled with increasing attention on infrastructure and regulation, battery-electric seems like the front runner for now. Synergies with other industries, such as the consumer tech industry’s need for high-capacity, fast-charging batteries should also be exploited. Integrated planning involving fleet and charge point owners as well as utilities is needed, as potential grid reinforcements could take up to three years.