“Hydrogen and battery electric both show promise but, at the moment, aren’t suitable for the distances required. A lack of support infrastructure makes them unviable for operators, from both a commercial and practical viewpoint,” explains Michael Bushby, Strategic Advisor. “However, a portfolio of bite sized enabling infrastructure programs could support industry investment.”
“While hydrogen has an attraction for timely refuelling, it takes a lot of energy to produce zero emitting green hydrogen from renewable energy sources. Although technologies are advancing, you currently either need an abundance of energy where significant losses can be accommodated or you’re better off using electricity directly.”
Supporting infrastructure is another consideration for battery electric heavy vehicles for static charging, battery swapping or mobile recharging to economically provide an alternative to current arrangements. Focusing on key freight corridors could deliver stepped change.
From an investment perspective, fragmentation of the sector poses challenges. Michael says that the freight industry is largely made up of private operators. “Investment decisions are made on commercial grounds, based on what is going to allow them to continue to competitively operate but also, what is in line with the expectations of their freight forwarders and customers. The decision will come down to what’s going to sustain their business and give them a market advantage.”
For the Australian Government, Sam explains that part of the difficulty lies in determining what the next steps are. “Governments will need to remain agile and undertake proactive planning to respond quickly to private industry once there is more certainty. Planning the infrastructure and policies required to support hydrogen and/or batteries is critical.”
Rail is more energy efficient than road transport however, complete decarbonisation remains a large challenge. Rail operators in Australia are yet to identify a cost competitive alternative to diesel which delivers equivalent performance and a low embodied carbon footprint. Complex and often overlapping compliance standards can result in multiple train control systems for a locomotive travelling nationwide.
That said, it’s not all grim news – there are ways forward.
Three ways forward for heavy haul
To reduce carbon emissions for the heavy haul freight sector, investment and political direction are key – and are becoming a sharp area of focus for both government and business.
In 2019, all Australian governments delivered the first ever National Freight and Supply Chain Strategy. Developed in consultation with industry, it outlines action in four areas over 20 years with a focus on sustainable operations. A discussion paper which is a precursor to the 2023 Review of the National Supply Chain Strategy indicates an even greater focus on decarbonisation in the impending review. All states and territories have committed to Net Zero by 2050 and the Australian government has increased and legislated its emissions reduction targets of 43 per cent by 2030.
Decarbonising freight doesn’t mean reinventing the wheel – we already have technology that we can better utilise to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Here are three possible ways to drive our way towards a Net Zero future for freight:
Battery electric could be the spark we need
The Australian Government has announced a National Electric Vehicle Policy. WSP, along with more than 100 companies, has publicly backed the strategy and called on the government to introduce measures including fuel efficiency standards, more electric trucks and other commercial vehicles, and a coordinated rollout of a charging network. Industry too is investing in the technology. Mercedes-Benz Trucks has unveiled its longest-range electric truck, capable of travelling approximately 500km on a single charge and Quantron has released a H2 fuel cell truck with a 1,500km range. These present a viable alternative to traditional fuel when it comes to covering vast distances.
For Michael, the need to travel distances is an important consideration with battery, coupled with the infrastructure to permit fast charging on freight routes. “Batteries don’t give the same range as diesel, but the technology is changing.”
Providing infrastructure for swapping batteries and fast-charging arrangements at new and pre-existing rest stops can mitigate the issues while technology progresses. In New South Wales, $171 million has been allocated towards charging infrastructure, particularly in regional areas, as part of the state’s Electric Vehicle Strategy. Situating this infrastructure on key freight routes would assist operators in transitioning.
Hydrogen as an alternate fuel source
Switching to hydrogen may be an attractive proposition as hydrogen fuel cell heavy vehicles have a larger range and faster refuelling than battery electric heavy vehicles. Advances in hydrogen technology and infrastructure have progressed for nearly a decade, and both the federal and state governments have committed funding to develop hydrogen hubs which should increase the availability and decrease the cost of hydrogen. These hubs could be co-located with transport and logistics facilities to maximise efficiencies for freight.
Design and delivery of the Hume Hydrogen Highway, Australia’s first renewable hydrogen highway, is currently underway. A joint initiative of the Victorian and New South Wales Governments, the highway will stretch along the nation’s busiest freight corridor. A minimum of four hydrogen refuelling stations will support approximately 25 hydrogen-powered linehaul trucks.
Two hydrogen fuel cell heavy vehicles currently in development for use on the highway will reportedly have an 800km range with a 20-minute refuelling time and a 1,200km with a 30-minute refuelling time up on their release in 2023 and 2024 respectively (ICCT & Ricardo Strategic Consulting, 2021).
These emerging lower emitting heavy vehicles, battery electric and hydrogen, will have additional mass and larger dimensions. Ongoing research and modelling are needed to determine the enabling infrastructure required and the long-term economic, social and environmental benefits of supporting the adoption of these low and zero emitting heavy vehicles.
Increasing freight volumes moved by rail
Sam says rail freight is currently the cleanest option for containerised and bulk freight however, enabling rail freight growth and encouraging industry investment is often challenging. Moving goods by rail doesn’t always align with commercial operations. Developing a better understanding of port and rail network capacities, what commodities and corridors are suited to certain modes of freight, and industries costs for moving goods and pain points will support investments that drive more freight on rail.
Emerging zero emitting road vehicle technology not being subjected to fuel tax also provides an interesting opportunity to price transport infrastructure access more accurately to include the full environmental, social (including congestion) and financial costs and benefits. This could support lower rail freight access charges, more accurately incentivising industry investment.
As many of Australia’s ports are located in our largest cities, rail freight networks that support these ports are often shared with passenger services and many are nearing capacity. A range of operational improvements and reforms could be considered to improve the capacity and reliability of these networks, and therefore attract investment. However, infrastructure enablers will also often be required.
An expansion of Port of Melbourne, Australia’s largest general cargo port, was driven partly by a goal of improving the port’s connection with the Victorian rail system, as well as a desire to reduce the number of trucks on the road and the port’s carbon footprint. Supporting new intermodal terminals connected to dedicated or reliable rail lines is also an effective way to encourage more freight to be moved by rail and reduce carbon emissions.
While rail is currently heavily reliant on diesel, there are measures that can be taken now to decarbonise rail freight. “Short-term, we can incentivise industry to retire ageing locomotive stock in favour of more fuel-efficient trains that produce less air pollution,” explains Sam. This could be achieved by providing new rolling stock with better track access during passenger peak or shoulder peak periods. There is also opportunity for governments to support the zero emitting port shuttle transportation of containers to intermodals through infrastructure funding.
“Longer term, there are broader opportunities.”