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Palmerston North City Council received funding from EECA’s Low Emission Vehicles Contestable Fund for two electric rubbish trucks which were launched in August 2018

The death of diesel? – By Nigel Parry

Will decarbonisation of transport syphon the diesel from your tank any time soon? The government are gunning for us. The Zero Carbon Bill, along with other statements and initiatives, shows that they are expecting us to clean up our act.

They are not alone. The Productivity Commission says that by 2050 we will need to stop burning fossil fuels: 18% of emissions are down to transport, and heavy road vehicles account for 19% of all transport emissions. 

Things are getting worse. Over the next decade in Auckland, the heavy vehicle commercial fleet is predicted to increase fuel consumption by 23%, accounting for 85% of the predicted increase in transport emissions.

The government would like to see action. The Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority (EECA) administers the Low Emissions Vehicle Contestable Fund which makes up to $7 million available annually, and many of the projects supported are for commercial vehicles. It will only fund the extra cost of vehicles and infrastructure and does need matching with commercial funding.

Reducing risk

This might seem like little more than a drop in the bucket, but the point of the Contestable Fund is reducing risk, according to Liz Yeaman, managing director of specialist green transport consultancy Retyna. “It provides confidence. A lot of those projects are just coming to the stage where final data is available. By the time they [electric trucks] reach price competitiveness, they have been seen to work in practice.”

Liz Yeaman, managing director of specialist green transport consultancy Retyna: “You need to look at electric trucks now, at least for journeys within regions, or you’ll quite quickly get left behind”

Biofuel is an attractive prospect for some. It is described as a ‘drop-in’ fuel, as it is a direct substitute for mineral diesel; just drop it in the tank and go. However, there are question marks over price, availability and uptake. “Market forces alone will not be sufficient to kick-start large-scale biofuel production,” says Dr Paul Bennett, science leader clean technologies at government science body Scion. With estimates ranging from 5% to 50% for uptake, any prediction would seem more like a guess.

We’re just starting to toy with electric commercial vehicles. Compared to diesel, the ‘fuel’ is cheap as chips, but sceptics argue the vehicles are too expensive and hamstrung by limited range. “As to price and range, one is coming down and the other is going up. We’re starting to approach competitiveness on a total cost of ownership basis,” says Liz Yeaman. Only 22% of freight movements are long distance anyway.

Hydrogen has long-range potential

Electric isn’t the only game in town either. There’s a lot of interest around hydrogen as a transport fuel. Combining with oxygen from the air, the main emission is water, with energy converted to electricity to drive the truck. And range can be impressive – up to 1600 km.

New Plymouth based Hiringa Energy says they are developing hydrogen fuel production from a four-turbine wind farm. This powers the electrolysis needed for production, keeping their ‘green’ credentials. However, infrastructure and take-up are still in their infancy. 

They see batteries as complementary, with longer distances and heavier vehicles being hydrogen powered. They claim a little infrastructure is all that is needed to make an impact, as refuelling times are closer to diesel – much faster than battery charging.

So can we make use of New Zealand’s electricity, 85% of which is produced from renewable sources? There are some initiatives to help get things moving. Road user charges (RUC) are not applied to commercial-size electric vehicles (EVs) until they reach 2% of the vehicle fleet. We have some way to go – as of July this year only 766 electric vans, trucks and utilities were on our roads, according to Motor Vehicle Register statistics.

Foodstuffs trials electric vans, and now trucks

One of the leaders in this tiny pack is Foodstuffs. Two years ago, they imported a fleet of 28 used, low-mileage Nissan e-NV200 vans. These have been used throughout the country, mainly for deliveries of online orders. “They have proven extremely popular with stores and have delivered good savings in terms of CO2 and fuel,” says Mike Sammons, sustainability manager of Foodstuffs.

Auckland Transport (AT) expects to start trialling New Zealand’s first hydrogen fuel cell bus from September 2020, in partnership with bus operators and Ports of Auckland, who are building a hydrogen production and refuelling facility at the Waitemata port

Now, Foodstuffs is upping the size, again with the support of the Contestable Fund. A 6 tonne, 11 tonne and a refrigerated 24 tonne truck, each with a range of 200–300 km, will “all hit the road by Christmas,” says Mr Sammons. “The trial with these three trucks will enable Foodstuffs to assess what a wider opportunity might look like. The trucks are fitted with slow chargers which suits their work habits – they will be able to be put on-charge for 12 hours overnight. Routes have been developed to maximise the functionality and range of the battery.”

How far can they go? As a concept report earlier this year notes, weight and charge time penalties can be more significant with heavier EVs. That report also showed that EVs are already almost cost-competitive with diesel over the lifetime of a vehicle, and they are still improving. Hydrogen is still some way behind. Purchase cost? A heavy EV can cost half as much again as a diesel one at present. Double that again for hydrogen.

Hooking up to the grid

One issue with EVs is how, when and where to charge them. Plugging into the mains might be OK for a Nissan Leaf, but restricts the mileage that can be loaded, especially with a truck battery that is four to ten times the capacity. 

However, some chargers are coming onstream that allow much more. Wellington already has ten electric double-decker buses, and these now connect to a 450 kW charger for a few minutes’ top-up when they get to the end of their route – enough to power the 35 km round trip while keeping battery packs small, and therefore lighter and cheaper.

While that might seem an attractive answer, there could be a twist. Stick some of those on loading docks at a distribution centre (DC) and you could easily need several megawatts of extra electricity supply. According to an electricity network insider, that might not be available without upgrading. “The closer the site is to our local ‘zone’ substations, generally the easier it is to connect extra load,” he says. “The Electricity Authority Distribution Pricing Principles guide electricity networks to pass costs to whoever is driving additional costs to the network and receiving the benefit.”

Tranzit Group managing director Paul Snelgrove with one of their electric double-decker buses – and some of their predecessors – at Wings Over Wairarapa 2019

So it might pay to investigate electricity supply when future-proofing a new-build or relocated DC.

Another issue with alternative fuels is the number of owner drivers. There is increased risk associated with high vehicle cost and limited compatible refuelling sites. However, there are risks of sticking with diesel for too long, according to Liz Yeaman: “At the moment, the residual value of electric trucks is highly uncertain. Within a few years, it’ll be the diesel truck. Who is still going to want to buy it?”

The upshot of all these alternatives, many presented and debated at the recent Freight Futures conference, is that decarbonisation is coming. That will increase the variety of fuel sources, but also might spur a rethink in distribution patterns to fit with lower-emission alternatives.

“Things are changing quickly,” concludes Liz Yeaman. “You need to look at electric trucks now, at least for journeys within regions, or you’ll quite quickly get left behind.”

Award-winning journalist Nigel Parry started writing for FTD over ten years ago, and has been covering logistics and supply chain issues in a number of countries for more than two decades; he can be contacted at nigel.parry@gmail.com

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