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Solutions
| 05/18/16

Ontario looks to low-carbon trucking despite technical challenges

TCE

Further details of Ontario’s ambitious climate plan were leaked to the press this week following a cabinet meeting where the 57-page strategy was laid out to ministers for the first time, including an effort to decarbonise the trucking industry.

The document would see the province spend $280 million to help school boards buy electric buses and haulage firms to adopt low-carbon trucking technology by building out liquefied natural-gas fuelling stations.

Reducing emissions from trucks would result in some of the plan’s biggest emissions cuts, but it presents a range of technical challenges that cars do not face. Nevertheless, a number of recent developments offer hope.

Commercial trucks usually haul up to 36,000 kilograms over as many as 500 kilometres between stops, yet contemporary batteries generally do not have the energy density (the amount of energy stored per unit of volume) to drive long distances. With current technology, over a third of that weight would have to be taken up by batteries to haul such a load, and they would take hours to recharge. Fuel cell vehicles could be an alternative to electrification, as they have much greater range, but hydrogen fuel is not widely available.

Biofuels are one of the most attractive immediate options, as the energy source in general works for existing trucks, and presents no range problems. However, full life-cycle analyses have demonstrated that many first-generation and even second-generation feedstocks are more carbon-intensive than fossil fuels, and conventional biofuels also puts pressure on agricultural land for food and animal feed. So any biofuels would have to come from sustainable feedstocks, and producing them at the quantities required by trucking remains a long way off.

Nevertheless, some varieties of heavy-duty vehicle are much more amenable to immediate decarbonisation than others, according to a US National Center for Sustainable Transportation report. Urban delivery trucks, garbage trucks and buses do not need to go such long distances, likewise the short-haul drayage trucks, also known as “donkeys”, that move loads from cargo ships to nearby distribution centres. Just last week, the California Air Resources Board—the state’s clean air agency—announced it would spend US$24 million to buy 43 zero-emission electric and low-emission hybrid donkeys to serve the state’s major ports.

Some heavy-duty vehicles are easier to decarbonise than others

In addition, trucks or buses that return to a depot at least once a day could run on hydrogen supplied at that depot without requiring substantial infrastructure build-out.

Meanwhile, two firms hoping to enter the low-carbon trucking space made fresh announcements this week. The US-based Nikola Motor Company has unveiled a 2,000-horsepower electric-compressed-natural-gas (CNG) hybrid semi-truck that reportedly can travel for 1300-1900 kilometres from a 320 kWh battery that never has to be plugged in. A natural gas turbine charges the battery while the truck is moving. To service these vehicles, Nikola plans to build a network of 50 CNG stations across the US.

And the Swiss company E-Force unveiled an 18-ton all-electric truck targeting the medium-range urban and interurban delivery market, offering a range of 300 km per charge.

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Reducing truck emissions offers huge GHG cuts for Ontario, but there are technical challenges that cars do not face

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