Comment: Decarbonising heavy transport

By: Nick Leggett, Road Transport CEO, Photography by: Supplied

Decarbonising heavy transport demands technology flexibility, says RTF CEO Nick Leggett


Auckland-based ETrucks are setting up a battery swap station

There may be more than 250 electric trucks over three tonnes on New Zealand’s roads at present, but only a handful of these are heavy trucks. One of the largest barriers to the adoption of electric trucks is the lack of charging facilities and support infrastructure but news of a soon-to-be-developed battery swapping station has brought us a step closer.

Auckland’s ETrucks has announced that it’s set to import a semi-robotic gantry from China that can lift out and replace a two-and-a-half-tonne truck battery while you wait. At present, refuelling a truck is a simple matter of driving to one of the many fuel stations located conveniently around the country.

ETruck’s proposal could result in electric trucks being ‘refuelled’ almost as easily. Swapping out the battery would also allow the trucks to continue their journey and for the batteries to be recharged at a time when electricity cost and demand is cheaper.

At this stage, ETrucks expects interest will come from infrastructure projects, a port or container facility, dairy factory, or large trucking companies making metro deliveries. For the application to work for intercity and linehaul operators, traditional retail fuel outlets will need to buy into the concept.

While the removable battery idea solves one problem, whether there will be both the electricity generation and reticulation to match a future New Zealand almost entirely reliant on electricity for everything, including transport, is debatable.

Moving the heavy vehicle fleet towards electric power and the use of sustainable alternative fuels is important but does present significant challenges. In addition to worrying about energy security and charging infrastructure, operators of medium- and heavy-duty trucks also need to have confidence in the longevity of the new power systems and drivetrains.

News that Meridian Energy and Contact Energy are co-funding a $2 million feasibility study into the potential of a large scale, renewable hydrogen production facility in the lower South Island could help hydrogen also become a viable alternative for heavy transport in New Zealand.

The two energy companies will investigate the export potential, value chain, policy approaches, technical requirements, environmental considerations, and practical issues of green hydrogen production and whether that’s a viable replacement for the energy-intensive Tiwai Point aluminium smelter.

RTF thinks hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) show considerable promise, and a number of heavy-duty truck manufacturers are already dabbling with the technology. Vehicles powered this way produce no harmful emissions—only water vapour—and unlike battery-powered systems, they do not use environmentally damaging metals such as lithium.

However, it’s worth noting nearly all the FCEV bus options overseas have been based on joint ventures between vehicle suppliers and transit companies, with Government support through technology grants. These are not open market vehicle sourcing operations but tightly controlled evaluations of a new and emerging technology.

While EVs and hydrogen remain the utopian long-term objective, RTF is also advocating for Government to support the uptake of practical emissions reduction technologies that exist in the market now.

In our recent submission on increasing the use of biofuels in transport, the RTF called
for the Government to be more decisive and fast-acting in enabling tangible progress on the uptake of biodiesel.

Instead of waiting for the perfect heavy truck to be produced that meets a singularly strict view of decarbonisation—which could be years away and is still more a fantasy than reality—the Government could be acting now with solutions that actually exist to reduce greenhouse gases, such as promoting the transition to biodiesel.

Biodiesel has been used in parts of Europe for several years and can be implemented largely using existing infrastructure to reduce emissions in heavy transport. A fully electric and/or hydrogen truck fleet with reliable energy supply is a long way off, so why doesn’t the Government show some flexibility and assist us to grab the low-hanging fruit that’s already available? 

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