25 sep 23

How to solve the challenge of decarbonising heavy-duty trucks

The opening of Shell’s first public electric charging station in Hamburg for trucks offers a glimpse of a zero-emission future for road freight.

In the iconic film Field of Dreams, Kevin Costner hears a whisper he cannot ignore while walking through his farm – “If you build it, he will come.” Taking a leap of faith, Costner converts a cornfield into a baseball diamond and the ghosts of Shoeless Joe Jackson and seven other Chicago White Sox players, turn up for a match.

It is going to take a similar leap of faith in the truck sector for fleets and charging providers to overcome a classic Catch-22 scenario. Fleets must transition to zero emission heavy-duty vehicles with confidence that charging infrastructure will be in place; and charging providers will have to build the infrastructure with confidence that fleets will come to use it.

Breaking this impasse is far more complicated than for electric cars. Freight margins are slim, making any transition to new, higher-cost technology a challenge in an industry where contracts are won or lost on the basis of cents per kilometre.

Power and location

At the same time, the two major criteria for truck charging stations are in short supply in key locations: an abundance of power, and an abundance of real estate to accommodate large vehicles (including those queuing to charge). The high cost of overcoming these two obstacles threatens to undermine the business case for building public charging stations, particularly with the prospect of a long lead-in period before there are sufficient electric trucks on the road to create meaningful demand.

Yet the Port of Hamburg’s approach showcases what is achievable if all parties in the ecosystem develop a solution together. In September last year, the port started a three-month trial of three Nikola Tre battery-electric vehicles for freight forwarders, with the objective that if the trial proved successful up to 25 Nikola Tre trucks would follow this year, alongside the replacement of the initial mobile chargers with fast-charging infrastructure. The port authorities were keen to start decarbonising inbound and outbound logistics, a major contributor to the port’s carbon footprint as well as air pollution.

The project is still in its infancy but highlights how there are already viable use cases for heavy duty electric vehicles. The challenge is how to scale it up at other logistics hubs, including ports, airports, freight parks and along key freight corridors across Europe.

Cost effective decarbonisation

“The decarbonisation of heavy-duty trucks is not easy,” said Thomas de Boer, Vice President of Shell Commercial Road Transport (pictured below). “This is an industry characterised by fragmentation and one where efficiency and cost competitiveness are essential to survive. So, the moment you start introducing new technology to decarbonise, you still need to have a very cost effective and efficient operating environment.”

Two industry sectors are pioneering the uptake of electric trucks, added de Boer. The first is organisations, both public and private, whose vehicles follow fixed, unchanging duty cycles, driving relatively short daily routes, with time overnight to recharge. The second is organisations with strong commitments to decarbonise, regardless of likely higher costs in the short term.

Europe's e-trucking markets

In the Netherlands, France, and UK, the combination of subsidies for the acquisition of zero emission heavy-duty trucks and penalties for diesel vehicles entering clean air zones are helping to establish cost parity between battery and fossil fuel technologies in the coming years, said de Boer, although much depends on where and when fleets will plug in their vehicles, with energy prices fluctuating widely between times of day, speeds of charging and location.

Factoring charging time into the tightly scheduled duty cycles of electric vehicles is a further complication for truck fleet managers. Businesses with a back-to-base operating model have an advantage, although there is still no guarantee they can access the high-power supply they require to recharge batteries with capacities approaching 500kWh. If the costs of upgrading the local electricity grid connection to the depot are prohibitively expensive, these fleets, along with others that follow different duty cycles, will have to rely on public chargers.

“We are working with customers to develop e-depots, building them at their own premises, as well as installing chargers on our existing Shell sites, because we have the leading truck refuelling network in Europe,” said de Boer. “The business case makes this journey not that straightforward and it will take a combination of risk taking, capital and working together closely across the industry to make it happen.”

Fleet partnership

Shell is already working closely with customers to secure commitments that if it builds a truck charging station, fleets will pledge to draw a certain volume of kilowatt hours every month or year.

“This reduces our risk and helps the customer to secure the right time slot at those premises,” said de Boer. “Every time we make an investment it’s on a case-by-case basis for both cars and heavy-duty vehicles, working closely with our customers to establish the right location to ensure timely use of sites.”

His reference to time slots acknowledges that truck charging stations will require a different operating model to car charging hubs. Strict regulations govern truck driver hours, so charging ideally needs to coincide with scheduled breaks to avoid unnecessary downtime and lost productivity. No logistics company will operate on a ‘hit or miss’ approach, said de Boer, visiting a charging station in the hope there is a space.

“That would not conform at all with what is needed in a high performance, highly efficient industry,” he said.

Mega-watt chargers will help to shorten charging times, but work needs to be done to protect the capacity of batteries repeatedly charged at ultra-fast rates. Compromising capacity would not only impact the range of vehicles but also undermine their residual values.

Alternatives to electrification

It’s also important to recognise that electrification is not the only way to decarbonise heavy-duty vehicles, with fleet operators facing a mosaic of solutions, such as low carbon fuels, including renewable diesel and bioLNG blend, which offer immediate alternatives to traditional fossil fuels.

“In Shell’s existing fleet in the Netherlands we are using renewable diesel and LNG to reduce emissions. Currently, most of our distribution trucks run on a low carbon fuel.” said de Boer. “We aim to increase the share of electric drivetrains in our fleet over time.”

Shell plans to open its first public heavy-duty transport charging site in Eindhoven, Netherlands later this year.

“Nothing is set in stone yet with heavy-duty vehicle decarbonisation, and that’s what makes this sector so cool,” said de Boer.


Images: Shell and Hamburg Port Authority / Andreas Schmidt-Wiethoff

Authored by: Jonathan Manning