How decarbonisation is adding to the pressure on the HGV industry

The importance of heavy goods vehicles (HGVs) to the UK economy has never been as high on the agenda as it is today. From delivering food to supermarkets, medicines to hospitals–and of course fuel to petrol stations–its contribution to our lives has been sharply brought into focus.

Beyond the need for more workers and training of drivers, further pressure on the industry will come from its decarbonisation. In 2019 HGVs contributed 16 percent of domestic transport greenhouse gas emissions and by 2050 this must become zero-emission as stipulated by the Government’s net-zero agenda.

If by 2040 we need to end the sale of diesel trucks, then we need at least 10 years to scale up the preferred zero-emission infrastructure and vehicle numbers to meet that challenge. That then takes us back to 2030, which is not actually far away.

Although a daunting task we only need to look at buses to see what can be achieved. Bus drivers that drive electric or hydrogen buses love them. They’re quiet, comfortable, and even smell better. Passengers love them, and mechanics are keen to train and upskill. They know it’s the future and they don’t want to get left behind.

Last year, Connected Places Catapult wrote the investment case for the decarbonisation of the sector which was instrumental in securing £20 million from the Department for Transport (see box).

Connected Places Catapult is now playing an enabling role by working alongside industrial partners, the Department for Transport and Innovate UK, and investigating long-term objectives, data, costs, export potential, standards, and safety.

A major component will be to assess the candidate technologies that would allow the sector to decarbonise. All of them would require an electric motor but this can be powered either by batteries, hydrogen fuel cells, or directly from some kind of electric road system (ERS), such as through overhead wires, for example.

The technologies available

All three technologies have their advantages and challenges. Batteries would be extremely heavy and occupy most of the tractor-unit of the HGV, which reduces efficiency and carrying capacity, and so more development is needed to improve energy density.

Green hydrogen (produced by renewable energy through electrolysis) can be produced directly at hydrogen refuelling stations, or can be distributed to them via a pipeline or tankers. Hydrogen has advantages in terms of flexibility, energy density, and the quick and familiar refuelling process.

However, hydrogen is a relatively energy-intensive way of powering vehicles. Reportedly, only around a third of the primary energy is used to drive the wheels of the vehicle once it’s been converted into hydrogen and then converted back to electricity to feed the motor. This will be investigated further as technology trials progress.

Electric Road Systems enable electrical energy to be delivered directly into a vehicle while it is in motion, and would represent the most energy-efficient method of powering HGVs. One example is to install an overhead catenary system with a pantograph fitted on the roof of the HGV to collect the electrical energy by making contact with the wires. 

Rolling out this type of system would require a significant upfront infrastructure investment, and there are practical considerations.

Sense of urgency

Connected Places Catapult’s ambition is to see trials and on ground demonstrations by 2025. It has provided evidence to Government to support funding of trials and in regards to a timeline, is working back from the deadline of 2050.  By 2027 or 2028 the sector needs to be making some decisions on which solutions are to be adopted at scale, and trials ideally need to be started by 2025.

Although the technology and infrastructure aren’t quite there yet, there is an appetite for zero emissions within the industry. And freight operators are coming under pressure from customers asking challenging questions about their supply chain and their steps towards greener and environmentally friendly solutions.

Unlike the current issue on shortages of drivers there is, frustratingly, no sense of urgency about zero-emission HGVs.

But there’s no alternative. We’ve got to look at the long-term solutions. We can’t just keep burying our heads in the sand. It will take significant investment to build up the infrastructure and vehicles and ensure they are suitable to meet the needs of operators. The trials must be big enough to be meaningful.

Projects from the £20 million include:

  • The trial and demonstration of 20 battery-electric DAF trucks by Leyland Trucks.
  • Three feasibility studies investigating ‘Electric Road Systems’, one led by Costain Ltd, another led by City Science Corporation Ltd and a third by Honda R & D Europe (UK) Limited. Each study is considering a different type and/or location for ERS.
  • Three hydrogen fuel cell feasibility studies, which are considering potential trials of 44-tonne hydrogen fuel cell trucks and refuelling infrastructure. One is led by Arcola Energy Ltd, and is focused in Scotland, a nationwide study is led by Element Energy Ltd, and a third is led by EDF Energy R&D UK Centre Ltd, and is focussed on the Midlands.