Transportation & Logistics Analysis

Alternatives to diesel: the path towards a new energy mix

December 19 2019

Conference. The need to reduce greenhouse gases means that lorry manufacturers, equipment producers and hauliers must all play a role in the transition to new sources of energy. How should it be carried out? What energy sources represent a real alternative to diesel? Several lorry manufacturers at the latest Solutrans trade fair were agreed that we need to move towards a new energy mix rather than any single solution.

In February 2019, the European Union adopted a regulation which requires heavy goods vehicle emissions to be reduced by 15% in relations to their 2019 levels by 2025 and by 30% by 2030. Lorry manufacturers will also have to ensure that low or zero emission vehicles represent 2% of the new vehicle market by 2025. "This change is essential for the energy transition," argued Jean-Yves Kerbrat, managing director at Man Truck & Bus France, at the start of a conference on alternatives to diesel at the Solutrans trade fair in Lyons on November 20. "Until now," he said, "we have above all tried to tackle local pollutants. Now, the challenge is CO²."

Reducing local pollutants

Local pollutants? Nitrogen and carbon monoxides and fine particles are indeed the main emissions targeted by the European Union limits and the most recent Crit'Air (French emissions rating system) stickers. For vehicle manufacturers, the efforts already made by transporters and their suppliers have already had a significant impact on the problem. "In 1990, there was no limit on particles," recalled Gilles Baustert, marketing and communications director at Scania France. "Today, with Euro 6 and bio-fuels, the levels of these pollutants are tightly regulated and controlled."

Olivier Metzger, alternative energy director at Renault Trucks, added, "In the course of the passage from Euro 0 to Euro 6, particles have been reduced by 98%. Gas, for example, has been developed because it provided a good solution to the particles problem." Alexis Giret, head of French road hauliers' body Comité National Routier (CNR), confirmed that "VNG (Vehicle Natural Gas), which is already available and even obligatory in certain urban conditions, has an immediate appeal since it eliminates virtually all particles and reduces nitrogen monoxide by half."

An energy mix to combat CO²

The new challenge facing transporters and lorry manufacturers, reducing CO² emissions by 30% by 2030, seems to make it even more urgent to switch to new energy sources. "There are two ways to reduce CO² emissions," said Jean-Yves Kerbrat. "The first is to increase the efficiency of our diesel and gas vehicles. The second is to bring decarbonized, zero emission vehicles into our fleets...The use of electricity is being developed, mainly for urban distribution, in low emission zones."

If electricity, which played the star role at Solutrans 2019, is currently enjoying great success, with manufacturers offering hybrid and 100% electric vehicles, diesel remains "pertinent for the time being", according to general opinion. At MAN, which delivered a 26-tonne electric vehicle to the Perrenot group in November (currently operating in the Paris region for retailer Franprix), managing director Kerbat considers that "decarbonized transport is an unavoidable reality. But it needs to be brought in gradually. In 2030, 10% of vehicles in towns and cities could be electric…90% will, therefore, still be thermal…We have several years to test the (new) energy sources operationally. And we must pay attention to developments in fuels. Bio-fuels could turn out to be a good transitional solution for reducing CO² emissions."

"We have 10 years of experience of electric light utility vehicles," said Clément Chandon, head of alternative energy vehicle development at Iveco, "but also have long experience on the bus market, using electricity, gas and hydrogen. Currently, seven non-diesel vehicles out of 10 in Europe are Ivecos. It is necessary to be open to all energy sources."

Renault Trucks has more than 10 years of "electro-mobility" under its belt after having brought out a light utility vehicle (LUV) in 2007, followed by many operational tests with partners using electric and hybrid vehicles of different tonnages…"In early 2020, we are launching production of 16 and 26 tonne electric vehicles at Blainville (Blainville sur Orne in Normandy)," said Olivier Metzger. "Until now, gas was presented as the solution to air quality problems. But today, faced with the CO² challenge, it is necessary to work with a mix of energies, composed according to the situation" and without prejudging. "Electricity is pertinent in towns and cities. Unless it is organically produced, gas does not reduce CO² sufficiently. Over long distances, Euro 6 diesel technology, coupled with biofuels, are very pertinent." In other words, diversity is the way to go.

Life cycle analysis

Scania France's Gilles Baustert agreed. He said that his company used five alternative energy sources to "make available immediately and directly fuels which reduce CO² emissions by around 90% compared to diesel. In the long term, we are heading for massive use of electricity, even for heavy goods vehicles. But a so-called "alternative" fuel to diesel is not necessarily "clean" in relation to CO². For example, when it is fossil-based, gas reduces CO² emissions by between 5% and 15%, compared to 90% for biogas. And where does the electricity used by an electric vehicle come from? What is contained in its batteries? How long is the vehicle's life? There is no fuel that can replace diesel, nor any one fuel which can replace all the others. We are heading for a mix of fuels. And the solution will not all depend on vehicle manufacturers but also on trained hauliers and drivers."

In similar style, Alexis Giret recalled that we need to reason in terms of life cycle analysis (LCA) to calculate the energy consumed, starting with the vehicle's production and that of its components and its energy source, right up to its being recycled or destroyed. "That changes everything. An electric vehicle with a chemical battery pollutes as much in LCA terms as a vehicle with a 40%" VGN usage rate.

Most speakers are following progress on fuel cells and hydrogen batteries. Hydrogen, which is non-fossil and non-polluting in terms of particles and CO², is well-placed in the "mix"…without taking account of energy sources still to be invented.

With the CNR set to publish VNG price indexes next year, like those for diesel, as well as a monograph on the operation of VNG heavy goods vehicles and a VNG simulator, Alexis Giret concluded that operational reality was the best basis for choosing the type of vehicle and fuel to be used. "It is operational requirements which will determine the choice," he said.

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