2022 is gone, a most violent year it was. 2023 is with us, a hope for the better for many. Not for everyone, though. The European Commission, in its relentless search for (miracle) strategies to fight climate change, adapt to its consequences at the very least, is on the warpath against liquid fuels propelling trucks, diesel in 96% of commercial transport uses in Europe, with, again, electric propulsion in sight.
No surprise that transport of goods should be targeted. 80% of this activity relies on road in Europe, generating more than one quarter of the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of transport, the most emitting sector, with only 2% of the vehicles on the roads. Obviously, if the carbon footprint reduction of heavy transport, a growing activity, is not addressed, what is the point of the efforts to reduce the carbon footprint of cars?
I ended 2022 on a sad note regarding the European car industry, facing the electromobility revolution in front of formidable adversaries, China and the U.S. Shall I start 2023 in the same mood or with a glint of hope regarding the truck industry?
Environmental NGOs are blowing down the neck of the European Commission, a typical activity in Brussels, to align the regulations for cars and trucks, arguing a ban of sales of all trucks and buses, large and small alike, with thermal engines, is feasible, technically and economically, in 2035, just a bit more than one decade away. GHG emission reduction standards would get more severe, from the present Euro 7 respective 15% and 30% reductions in 2025 and 2030, v. 2019, to 30% and 65%.
With such a mighty objective in sight with so little time to adapt, alternative fuels that were on the drawing board — natural gas, hydrogen, biofuels, methanol — pale in front of the miracle energy vector, electricity. The Commission is hoping for improvements in battery technology, in other terms, lower cost and higher range, and that recharging infrastructure deployment will be there in time.
European truck manufacturers including Volvo Trucks, Renault Trucks, Scania, MAN, Daimler, have already considered electromobility. Renault Trucks has actually been selling electric trucks since March 2020. Tesla is not the front-runner with its Semi. Obviously, with a price tag some three times higher than for a diesel equivalent model, sales remain modest so far, despite incentives, local regulations (for public transport and refuse collection vehicles), Opex savings, as the transport of goods remains competitive and on the front-line when inflation becomes the main worry of the client. Long-term returns from the switch to electromobility may be a remote, end-of-the-world, concern for a transport company facing end-of-the-month headaches.
Innovation is necessary to remain in the lead. Financially, it is happening, with three major European truck manufacturers co-investing in a large bespoke recharging infrastructure on main motorways and around logistics areas. Technically, if the EU gets serious about catching-up on battery manufacturing and critical material sourcing, but the former is not being subject, for the time being, to the future Carbon Border Adjustment, thus is likely to be threatened by imports into the European market, simply from a price reason, with a consequent supply security concern. Same old story. But other innovations are possible, like using renewable methanol to operate fuel cells as a range extender in electric vehicles.
And innovation takes time, while reducing the carbon footprint of human activities is a matter to be tackled here and now, not only with ambitious net zero emission targets in 2050, lest we will not be able to contain the global warming of our planet, 1.5 °C being already history for climatologists. As the switch-over from internal combustion engines to electric engines is likely to also take decades for the heavy-duty vehicles, why not first innovate with bioenergy?
Biomass-based esters and paraffinic (synthetic) diesel have not reached the incorporation limit in commercial diesel, far from that, as full substitution is possible with renewable diesel, aka HVO. Technologies, like gasification-synthesis of agricultural and forestry wastes, Renewable Energy Directive (RED) approved, just wait to be demonstrated at scale. Biomass respecting the tough EU RED sustainability criteria is widely available, just waiting for the collection business models to materialize. Both technologies and resources are local and will not cause any supply security issues, actually will create industrial jobs, one of the big concerns now and for the future, on a continent where de-industrialization has been rampant since the start of the globalization, three or four decades ago.
Re-industrialization can be a reality with bioenergy. Meanwhile, contrary to the trend in the EU, the U.S. seems more pragmatic and inclined to consider diesel as a full-time partner for the future of transport with the EPA having released on December 20, 2022, a final standard for new trucks, starting with model year 2027, which is compatible with recent progress in diesel engine technology, combining drastic reduction in air quality pollutants (NOx, particulates) emissions and reduced climate impact, from lower fuel consumption and compatibility with low-carbon and sustainable diesel. And Chinese truck manufacturers look at using renewable methanol.
The future of heavy-trucking mobility technology: Fragmented? But, then, so what? Trucking remains a regional activity.
Philippe Marchand is a Bioenergy Steering Committee Member of the European Technology and Innovation Platform (ETIP).