Green should remain the new black

Green should remain the new black

The entire world’s focus has been on the effects of Covid-19, but the crisis posed by global warming still looms

We’ve heard and read about the environmental benefits brought about by lockdowns across the globe, from cleaner air to the presence of wild animals on the streets of urban jungles. But these benefits are, unfortunately, only short-lived, with these lockdowns actually doing more harm than good to the environment.

This thinking is outlined in an article, “Short-term Environmental Benefits of Covid-19 Lockdown May Be Outweighed by Subsequent Cuts in Green Energy Investment”, by the internationally recognised Technology Networks Group.

The article highlights the findings of a new Yale-led study: “The short-term environmental benefits of the Covid-19 crisis, including declines in carbon emissions and local air pollution, have been documented since the early days of the crisis. This silver lining to the global crisis, however, could be far outweighed by the impacts on clean energy innovation.”

The economic downturn triggered by the pandemic could have a devastating impact on long-term investment in clean energy.

“Under a worst-case – but realistic – scenario, [the Yale researchers] predict that an additional 2 500 million tonnes of carbon dioxide – or the equivalent of nearly 3 trillion pounds of coal burned – could be emitted, causing 40 more deaths per month, through 2035.”

“This global crisis will certainly defer investments in clean energy,” says Kenneth Gillingham, an associate professor of environmental and energy economics at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (and lead author of the paper). “Depending on how policymakers respond, the consequences for human health from this deferred investment could far exceed the short-term environmental benefits that we have seen so far.”

According to – a massive market research store with 1 700 research teams across 81 countries – the global electric commercial vehicles market is also expected to decline, from US$48,54 billion (more than R800 billion) in 2019 to US$40,7 billion (approximately
R671 billion) in 2020 at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of -16,06%.

“The decline is mainly due to an economic slowdown across countries owing to the Covid-19 outbreak and the measures to contain it,” it notes in the report “Electric Commercial Vehicles Global Market Report 2020-30: Covid-19 Growth and Change”. “The market is then expected to recover and reach US$96,85 billion (more than R1 597 billion) in 2023 at CAGR of 21,8%.”

Other factors that restrain the growth of the electric commercial vehicle market are limited battery power and longer charging duration. The report notes that for electric commercial vehicles, the range and performance of the battery is typically less powerful and has a limited range
(90 km to 160 km per charge) and is considered suitable only for short-distance travel.

“The limited travel range of batteries of electric vehicles raises concerns among consumers that their vehicles may run out of charge or power before reaching the destination.”

This is especially true in South Africa, where a lack of infrastructure is hindering the adoption of these vehicles. Our electricity is also mainly generated by coal.

Is electro-mobility the only way to go?

Liquefied natural gas (LNG) will soon be a viable option on South Africa’s busiest trade route, however, as a Free State gas company has signed a deal with Total to set up LNG pumps on the N3.

“Sometime around the third quarter of 2021, new fuel pumps are due to appear at two Total filling stations on the N3, one near Johannesburg, and one near Durban,” writes Business Insider SA reporter Phillip de Wet in his piece: “From next year trucks on the N3 could save 25% on fuel thanks to LNG – but motorists can’t have any”.

“They will be offering LNG, from wells in the Free State, for use by specially adapted vehicles – at a discount of at least 25% to the price of diesel.”

Original equipment manufacturers also believe that LNG is a viable alternative, as pointed out by the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT), one of the largest and most influential trade associations in the UK, in its piece “Volvo Trucks revives interest in liquefied gas”.

It quotes Lars Mårtensson, Volvo Trucks director of environment and innovation: “We believe LNG-fuelled trucks are the most commercially viable alternative for heavy long-haul operations. This fuel is available in sufficiently large quantities and at a competitive price. Using more gas trucks creates favourable conditions for making a transition to a larger share of liquefied biogas over time.”

The SMMT reports that, as a response to increased interest in the green fuel from hauliers, Volvo FH and Volvo FM trucks will introduce engines compatible with LNG and biogas.

“Gas-compatible Volvo Trucks provide energy efficiency that is comparable to diesel alternatives, while producing significantly reduced CO2 emissions. Liquefied biogas (Bio-LNG) can reduce emissions by 100% from tank to wheel, while natural gas can still result in a 20% reduction over diesel.”

Mårtensson adds: “By investing in LNG trucks, we are showing that Bio-LNG is an important alternative to reduce dependency on fossil diesel. However, to speed up the transition to climate-neutral transport, it is necessary to continue investing in liquefied gas filling stations and carrying out measures to make it easier for hauliers to invest in heavy gas-powered vehicles.”

Could hydrogen be another answer?

In his own piece – “What is the future of hydrogen in trucking?” on the Volvo Trucks website – Mårtensson questions whether hydrogen’s potential is being overlooked in the transport industry.

“In many ways a hydrogen fuel cell works much like a battery except that, rather than needing to be recharged regularly from an external source, a fuel cell generates electricity directly, and will do so as long as hydrogen, one of the most abundant resources on earth, is available,” he writes. “Hydrogen powered vehicles also have many of the same advantages of electromobility – no tailpipe emissions and low noise.”

Mårtensson adds that if the hydrogen is produced from a renewable source, it can emit very low well-to-wheel emissions. “However, as it stands today, around 95% of the hydrogen produced comes from fossil fuels, such as natural gas and oil. This has a significant impact on hydrogen’s overall climate impact and naturally more hydrogen would have to be produced from renewable resources for the technology to have better green credentials.”

What are the challenges and opportunities?

Mårtensson explains that the production costs of fuel cells pose a significant barrier to the wider adoption of hydrogen vehicles. “As a fuel source, hydrogen is roughly three to four times more expensive than diesel. There are also large gaps in infrastructure, which is costly to build.

“However, these challenges are not insurmountable and hydrogen fuel cells still offer huge potential as a clean source of fuel.”

This was proven earlier this year when Hyundai Motor Company shipped its first 10 Xcient Fuel Cell units to Switzerland. The company plans to roll out a total of 1 600 Xcient Fuel Cell trucks by 2025.

“Xcient Fuel Cell is a present-day reality, not as a mere future drawing board project,” says In Cheol Lee, executive vice president and head of the commercial vehicle division at Hyundai Motor Company. “By putting this ground-breaking vehicle on the road now, Hyundai marks a significant milestone in the history of commercial vehicles and the development of a hydrogen society.”

Xcient, the world’s first mass-produced fuel cell heavy-duty truck, is powered by a 190 kW hydrogen fuel cell system with dual 95 kW fuel cell stacks. Seven large hydrogen tanks offer a combined storage capacity of around 32,09 kg of hydrogen. Its driving range, per charge, is about 400 km (in the 4×2 truck, with a refrigerated configuration, while operating a 34 t truck and trailer combination). The refuelling time for each truck is between eight to 20 minutes.

Is there only one alternative fuel for the future?

“As with any discussion around alternative fuels, hydrogen versus electric trucks should not be framed as a ‘winner takes all’ argument,” notes Mårtensson. “Rather we should consider the advantages and disadvantages of each alternative and understand that each solution will be competitive for different operations, regional needs and at different points in time.”

There really is no silver bullet when it comes to alternative drivelines and fuels, but we should continue to take shots to improve the health of our planet – otherwise Covid-19 will be the least of our problems.

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Focus on Transport

FOCUS on Transport and Logistics is the oldest and most respected transport and logistics publication in southern Africa.
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