The heavy, battery-electric eActros from Daimler brand Mercedes-Benz went through three years of intensive customer testing before hitting the market in June 2021 for use in urban areas.
The transportation sector is the single largest contributor to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the United States, according to the EPA, having dislodged electricity generation from the top spot in 2017. It will likely remain the chief emissions offender too, because while GHGs from electricity generation have fallen compared with 1990 levels, emissions from transportation activity are still edging upward.
As this trend continues, sharper focus will fall on the need for emissions reductions from the transportation sector. Though total transportation emissions also include those from planes, trains and ships, over half of the sector’s emissions come from road vehicles alone.
Of that portion, medium- to heavy-duty trucks have the most impact, contributing a full 20 percent of road transportation emissions while representing just 5 percent of all registered vehicles. Decarbonize these, and substantial GHG reductions can be realized.
Happily, momentum is building to make this happen, spurred on by various cities, states, the U.S. federal government and the business community.
Decarbonizing corporate fleets is a key tool to reduce global emissions
Black & Veatch, a leader in clean energy, engineering and transportation infrastructure, surveyed executives at 420 Fortune 1,000 companies, and 89 percent of them said reducing GHG emissions is an organizational goal. Over half (53 percent) also indicated that electrifying their vehicle fleets is a primary strategy to cut emissions.
Augmenting that effort is pressure from state governments that are making zero emissions vehicles (ZEV) mandatory at some point on the horizon. But while the signposting toward cleaner transportation seems clear, fleet decarbonization will not happen overnight.
“To convert a fleet to zero emissions by 2030 or 2040 would be considered an aggressive goal,” said Maryline Daviaud Lewett, director of business development for transformative technologies at Black & Veatch. “It takes five to 10 years to convert a medium to large size fleet, so to reach a 2030 goal, you need to start now.”
Even starting today, fleet managers have much to consider, not least of which is figuring out which zero-emission technology will best fit their operation.
Unlike the passenger vehicle market, where electric vehicles (EVs) have been on sale for around a decade with choices growing robustly each year, zero-emission fleet transportation vehicles are really just beginning to emerge. As the technology in this space evolves, hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) will come into their own alongside battery EVs, because for some classes of vehicle, fuel cells will be more suitable.
EVs or hydrogen fuel cells? What works best and where
In general, EV power trains work best in predictable environments where temperate climates prevail, as those systems excel over shorter range hauls with flatter terrain. They’re also better suited for lighter weight vehicles, up to Class 6 — which, for context, includes single-axle trucks and school buses.
Conversely, FCEVs are advantageous for longer range cycles, performing better in colder climates and in circumstances where repeatedly negotiating steep grades with heavy payloads is expected. Class 8 trucks — think: large semi-trailer trucks — would be ideally suited to FCEV power trains.
There are further considerations fleet managers must consider, though, even once they figure out which zero-emission vehicle platform will likely work best. As things stand today, they face a zero-emission fleet market still in its infancy, with commensurate limitations.
Scaling zero-emission fleets in an emerging market
For the moment, EV technology is further along. There is a higher degree of standardization in charging infrastructure, for example, along with increasing vehicle choice either available now or in the near-term pipeline.
There’s a lot of business interest in EVs, too. For example, Amazon has invested in the EV company Rivian and committed to purchase 100,000 electric delivery trucks from the startup. In addition, the major international logistics companies, Fed-Ex, UPS, DHL and even the U.S. Postal Service, have all made commitments to introduce electric trucks for their “last-mile” deliveries.
Even Class 8 vehicles can be fully electric on predictable short-range routes. Via a public-private partnership, the Joint Electric Truck Scaling Initiative announced in August will deploy 100 fully-electric Class 8 trucks made by Daimler and Volvo. These will serve the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles in California, connecting them with nearby distribution centers. The project is slated to displace 690,000 gallons of diesel fuel a year, while reducing pollution in the disadvantaged communities those routes traverse.
But while EVs forge ahead, “hydrogen is a bit behind regarding the technology adoption rate in the US,” Daviaud Lewett told TriplePundit. “Things are not standardized, and the infrastructure is expensive.” Progress is nonetheless being made in the FCEV space.
Black & Veatch has built 18 hydrogen stations in California, where the nation’s hydrogen filling stations tend to be concentrated. Yet for FCEVs to gain traction and become an important part of the zero-emission fleet, the U.S. needs more fueling stations as well as reliable hydrogen supplies in distributed locations, ideally green hydrogen.
The road forward for hydrogen fuel cells
Sourcing hydrogen itself is a tough nut to crack, with a carbon footprint of its own to consider. Most hydrogen produced today is derived from natural gas, with production centralized in just three key U.S. states. Additionally, since natural gas is mostly methane, which is itself a greenhouse gas, only if it involves carbon-capture can it be seen as a suitable bridge fuel known as “blue hydrogen.” The most promising source, however, is green hydrogen.
Green hydrogen is derived from the electrolysis of water: the process of splitting off hydrogen atoms from H20 in an electrolyzer. Though energy intensive, if done with 100-percent renewables, the process would result in zero-carbon emissions. Ultimately, site level electrolyzers are foreseeable, reducing the current reliance on centralized sources.
There are several pilot programs running for renewable hydrogen around the world, but as a reference, even conventionally sourced hydrogen cuts emissions in half compared with the diesel and gasoline it replaces in FCEVs, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
Beyond solving for hydrogen sources, FCEVs face another fundamental challenge: There are no large truck fleets currently on the market. FCEV buses are just now coming into the mix, which will help with moving people, and Daviaud Lewett predicts truck fleets could follow in about three to four years’ time.
The bottom line: Decarbonizing fleets is challenging, but it’s more than doable
In short, there are a lot of moving pieces involved in decarbonizing fleet vehicles in a young and still evolving market. Fleet operators who want to make the switch have to plan carefully to select the right technology and the right vehicles while considering infrastructure needs, especially if they want to bring EV charging or hydrogen filling stations on site. For fleet EV charging, it can take up to 18 to 24 months to build out the onsite charging infrastructure, including getting the requisite power supply from local utilities. But it will likely be increasingly advantageous to make the effort.
The bottom line, Daviaud Lewett told us, is “the total cost of ownership of a zero-emission fleet is already competitive with conventional fleets.” But since there are greater upfront costs, government investment can spur things along. “Where there are subsidies and grants available, things are moving fast,” she said.
It’s also encouraging to note also that major oil and international energy companies are getting involved in the zero-emission fleet vehicle space, which brings a final thought: If incumbent energy companies are prepared to invest in technology that allows for the decarbonization of fleets, there is promise in the possibility that the world can transition from the legacy technology of the internal combustion engine to a zero-emission fleet future.
This article series is sponsored by Black & Veatch and produced by the TriplePundit editorial team.
Image credit: Daimler (press use only)
Phil Covington holds an MBA in Sustainable Management from Presidio Graduate School. In the past, he spent 16 years in the freight transportation and logistics industry. Today, Phil's writing focuses on transportation, forestry, technology and matters of sustainability in business.