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Can the Trucking Industry Help Boost Fuel Sustainability?

leonkaye headshotWords by Leon Kaye
Energy & Environment

We grit our teeth when we see them on the road, but the stubborn truth is that trucks are an integral part of the North American economy’s foundation. The movement of goods from port to storefront or warehouse is a huge economic multiplier and employer. At the same time, in addition to the fact that trucking is a brutal job entailing long hours, many truckers are independent contractors. True, cheap oil may lighten their wallets, but the history of fossil fuel prices suggests at any point in the future they will be susceptible fuel cost shocks. More sustainable sources of fuel would be a huge benefit to the industry in the long run.

To that end, BSR (Business for Social Responsibility) has issued another one of their energy and fuel reports. The latest study focuses on transportation fuel in North America, and its timing is on point considering 2014 was the hottest year on record. Transportation causes 14 percent of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions and 23 percent of carbon dioxide emissions. Clean energy technologies are slowly gaining traction within the transport sector, but the process will be slow: the International Energy Agency (IEA) suggests renewables will at best make up 15 percent of the globe’s transport mix by 2035. Hence the industry faces massive challenges, but also opportunities for companies as the sector will continue to grow at a rapid pace.

Natural gas is the obvious bridge from petroleum to future renewable technologies for the trucking industry, fueled in part by the fracking boom. Cleaner burning than diesel, natural gas fuels over 110,000 trucks in the U.S. currently and almost 15 million worldwide. The biggest roadblocks towards increased adoption include vehicle price premiums, the lack of an adequate refueling infrastructure and problems with storing this fuel at higher densities and lower pressures.

Whether biofuels can help wean the trucking industry away from fossil fuels is open to debate. True, they emit less greenhouse gas emissions than conventional fuels, but their ability to scale is a huge question mark. The food-versus-fuel debate will continue to rage, and biofuels’ current costs are not yet on parity with conventional sources. U.S. federal law also prohibits no more than a 10 percent biofuel blend, which also gets in their way of having an increased role in the trucking sector. The IEA is optimistic that biofuels could provide more than one-fourth of total transport fuel by 2050, but problems including land rights and feeding a growing population could get in the way of that scenario.

One option showing potential is battery technology. Currently electric vehicles (EVs) are on the fringe of the trucking industry and are only finding growth in the light-truck category. Battery size, life and of course, range are barriers to a future of electric trucks. As battery technology improves however, they could find growth within the trucking industry. Electric trucks could theoretically charge overnight at main transit points, using off-peak electricity. They could also provide energy storage at businesses relying on solar energy or other renewable sources for power. Most likely, however, such a vision would not happen unless next-generation batteries become cost effective, which would then become a huge boost for trucking efficiency.

While BSR emphasizes the growing risks of climate change as a clarion call to increase the role of sustainable fuels within the trucking industry, what will really resonate with this sector is cost-effectiveness and efficiency. Thin profit margins and a vicious competitive environment are what defines this industry—in addition to the long hours and pressure to deliver goods without delay. Logistics companies such as FedEx and UPS can invest in vehicles using clean energy because they have the resources, which is far from true from smaller mom-and-pop operations. More stable fuel costs, improved torque from an EV vehicle and less vehicle maintenance are among the benefits that will speak to managers and workers within the industry. One those factors become a reality, we can then bask in a less polluted world with reduced climate risks.

Based in California, Leon Kaye has also been featured in The Guardian, Clean Technica, Sustainable Brands, Earth911, Inhabitat, Architect Magazine and Wired.com. He shares his thoughts on his own site, GreenGoPost.com. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

Image credit: BSR


Leon Kaye headshotLeon Kaye

Leon Kaye, Executive Editor, has written for Triple Pundit since 2010. He is also the Director of Social Media and Engagement for 3BL Media, and the Editor in Chief of CR Magazine. His previous work can be found at The GuardianSustainable Brands and CleanTechnica. Kaye is based in Fresno, CA, from where he happily explores California’s stellar Central Coast and the national parks in the Sierra Nevadas.

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