Electrifying freight – it’s time for collaboration between industry and academia

Electrifying freight – it’s time for collaboration between industry and academia

Deputy Director of the Centre for Sustainable Road Freight | Heriot-Watt University

The challenges facing the freight industry have remained largely unchanged over the last century. Driver shortages, fuel costs and operational demands, albeit on a different scale to the early 1900s, are as relevant today as they were in Edwardian times. 
 
Freight has faced a difficult few years from a reputational point of view, often cited as a disproportionate contributor to current pollution levels. Decarbonisation, air quality and changes in energy and communications technologies are all impacting the sector. HGVs, light vans, buses and coaches contribute 34% of the UK’s total transport related CO2 emissions.
 
With emission regulations continually evolving, operators must fulfil national and international guidelines balanced against the strategies introduced by individual cities as they take an increasingly proactive approach to reducing their own air pollution. Major conurbations like Paris, Shanghai and London are imposing city-wide restrictions and even bans on freight transport in certain areas. 
 
Heriot-Watt University, the Centre for Sustainable Road Freight and system integrator Flexible Power Systems are working in partnership on a series of data driven projects that are investigating large-scale practical emissions reduction and the cost saving potential of freight electrification.
 
Commercial vehicles represent a unique challenge for electrification because of their need to carry payloads across demanding duty cycles for a very cost sensitive customer base. We want to understand the maximum contribution that electrification can make to commercial vehicle decarbonisation and economics within the constraints of real-world operations. To do this, we are bringing together customers, energy systems thinking, technologies, operational and network perspectives.
 
The aim of the projects is to build an evidence base about what is possible for emissions reduction from both a commercial and technology perspective. The studies’ outcomes will be used to help operators develop cost effective fleet strategies and inform policy makers about how to achieve long-term climate mitigation goals. 
 
Technology and operations changes 
So, given the many challenges electrification faces, is it the best approach for freight? A plethora of new vehicle technologies have been presented to operators and supported by government, including compressed natural gas, liquified natural gas, hydrogen and hybrids. All have advantages and challenges in terms of the vehicles and infrastructure they require to support them. Although they can achieve substantial emissions reductions, these technologies cannot offer the 80% emissions reduction required by 2050 as outlined in the 2008 UK Climate Change Act.
 
Biomethane has potential to offer large carbon savings providing none is lost during refuelling or via engine operation. There are, however, challenges in accessing sufficient feedstock to produce it and the freight sector has to compete with other uses like aviation and heating.
 
Over the last five years, research at Heriot-Watt University has focused on investigating the potential for operational changes like consolidation, increased vehicle loadings and back hauling to provide emissions reductions. Whilst substantial cost and emissions savings are possible, it is clear that operational changes alone will not get the industry to where it needs to be.
 
A complementary mix of technology and operational improvements are therefore required to deliver the 80% reduction. This will be complex and costly to tax payers and industry to implement – not least because the degree of equipment and supporting infrastructure customisation will be significantly higher than it is with fossil fuels.
 
Electrification is gaining traction in the passenger car segment and, if the electricity is generated from low carbon sources, an 80% emissions reduction could be achieved. However, numerous barriers exist to using this technology ranging from model and infrastructure availability to maintaining range, payload and cost. It is far from a ‘drop-in’ solution.
 
The Centre for Sustainable Road Freight, a joint initiative between Heriot-Watt University and Cambridge University, recently received £9.5m worth of funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) ETI, Industry and InnovateUK to work with industry to investigate options and costs for this blend of measures. The Centre’s aim is to develop a data driven evidence base to inform policy makers about what is achievable so that we get regulation that fits with commercial and technical reality. To do this, we need data from operators in the industry.
 
Feasibility 
Despite its challenges, electrification is attractive to policy makers because it delivers deep carbon reductions and can build on the infrastructure that is going to be built for the 30 million cars on our roads.
 
One of our projects is investigating the feasibility of electrifying <3.5T van movements at scale. Based on granular order data from participating operators, we are checking the percentage of distribution centres and retail stores and journeys that could be electrified under a ‘business as usual’ scenario and what the associated costs would be in terms of vehicles, infrastructure and electricity network upgrades.
 
The study will then explore whether the economics and the number of feasible sites can be improved through optimising equipment choices and operational factors like vehicle loading. Finally, the study will investigate options to support a transition from diesel to electrification. We will publish the high-level results of the study and provide bespoke reports to participating operators to use both in their own short-term deployments where electric vehicles are cost effective and in their long-term business projections.
 
The future of trailers
At the other end of the scale, in terms of vehicle size, we are working on a project with Lawrence David and Cartwright Group to investigate how trailers may be able to incorporate emerging energy storage, connectivity and light weight technologies in the future. We are talking to operators about how their use of trailers might change as customer demands evolve and then comparing that to a landscape of emerging technologies. This information will be used to inform a programme of techno-economic and emissions assessments of the impact of packages of ‘up featuring’ for trailers. This will be used to inform long-term product planning for body builders and to help the industry provide an evidence base to its customers and policy makers about what is technically and economically viable in the short-term.
 
How can operators help?
We are inviting operators to share detailed operational data with us on a confidential basis for analysis and insights that will help us to work together in partnership to develop long-term management strategies for their fleets.
 
As these projects progress, we hope to update the industry on our progress in Freight Industry Times. If you would like to learn more about the work being conducted by Heriot-Watt University, The Centre for Sustainable Road Freight and Flexible Power Systems, or would like to participate in our studies, please contact p.greening@hw.ac.uk or info@flexpowerltd.com.
 
Project leads
Prof Phil Greening from Heriot-Watt University is the Deputy Director of the Centre for Sustainable Road Freight. His research interests include complexity, risk in supply chains, road freight, green logistics, and computer modelling of complex systems. Prior to joining academia, Professor Greening held the post of Senior Supply Chain Consultant with a global logistics company, responsible for the delivery of over 30 consultancy assignments.
 
Michael Ayres is Managing Director of Flexible Power Systems, a system integrator building an ecosystem of hardware and software solutions across thermal, electrical and transport energy systems to help the food, retail and logistics sectors cost effectively decarbonise their operations whilst maintaining service levels.